by Andrew Crumey
Published in Scotland on Sunday, 1996-99
Galatea 2.2, Richard Powers, Abacus £9.99.
Toying with self-reference in the manner of Paul Auster, Powers presents himself as "Humanist in Residence" at an unnamed American university, working on the creation of a computer which will read and understand books. Cognitive science and neural nets rub shoulders with the author/narrator's wistful memories of a lost affair from which the computer program (named Helen) provides some solace. A would-be Pygmalion for the cyber age, the book's constant references to Power's earlier works cause the legend of Narcissus to spring more readily to mind.
Envy at the Cheese Handout, Lynne Bryan, Faber and Faber, £5.99.
The fourteen short tales in this debut collection skirt the shabby margins of urban life. The tone is one of carefully nurtured ambivalence, the subject matter studiously banal. A woman charges her lover for sex, though without obvious reason; a grocer nurtures a secret passion, then disappears. Often lacing her work with surreal humour, Bryan remains a detached outsider, watching her characters with fascination, yet never quite allowing the reader to engage with them.
UFOs Are Coming Wednesday, Eric Sykes, Virgin, £4.99.
Yes, it's that Eric Sykes, beaming down from 70's sitcom heaven with a cosy tale of alien visitation. The plot itself is curiously time-warped: aliens send letter to town council warning of the danger of nuclear proliferation; Tory leader fears a Marxist plot... It's all good clean fun, the Chief Inspector solves the lot, and the only thing that's missing is Hattie as an alien abductee. X Files this ain't, but Sykes fans will appreciate it.
Why Freud Was Wrong, Richard Webster, HarperCollins, £9.99.
Don't be put off by the catchpenny title; this is a scholarly, meticulous and even-handed survey, quietly devastating in its exposure of the misdiagnoses, self-deception and lust for fame which formed the shaky foundations of the Freudian "pseudoscience". Freud's patients were not simply repressed Viennese housewives with sexual hang-ups; they were often the victims of epilepsy, Tourette's syndrome and a host of other organic ailments which the master invariably put down to hysteria. A compelling book, and essential reading for anyone who's ever considered hiring a therapist.
James Herbert's Dark Places, James Herbert, HarperCollins, £9.99.
Tastefully spooky rather than ghoulish, this is agreeable coffee-table fodder with some very beautiful photographs of historic sites evocatively grouped as "Abandoned", "Lonely" etc. The accompaniment is provided by excerpts from the great scaremaster himself, who also explains how some of the locations have been used in his books. Lots of ideas for creepy excursions here - me, I'm off down the B3212 to locate the spot where dogs are well known to "hunker down in abject terror"...
Mariette in Ecstasy, Ron Hansen, Picador £5.99
Set in a convent in upstate New York at the turn of the century, this is the delicately told story of a seventeen year old postulant who throws the entire community into upheaval when she apparently receives the stigmata. Hansen's narration is spare and slow moving, at times even sluggish, and yet he manages to capture a convincingly claustrophobic mood of religious fervour in language which is so rigorously pared down that it attains a haunting lyricism.
Hood, Emma Donoghue, Penguin £6.99
Dublin girls Pen and Cara have been lovers since their school days. Thirteen years on, Cara is killed in a car crash, and the novel follows the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, as Pen looks back on a relationship which she has kept secret from her family and colleagues. The contrasting personalities of the two women provide the book's axis. Donoghue writes with warmth and humour, and her handling of the subject is touching without being sentimental.
Instead of Diamonds, Carla Lane, Penguin £5.99
The opening chapters of this autobiography paint a vivid picture of the family background which would later inspire Bread. But are the subsequent gaps and fast-forwards a result of excessive tact, or a lack of concern? The most closely studied personality in the book is a pet dog called Maximus, while the death of a grandson is casually mentioned in connection with the editing of a Liver Birds script. This breathless rush through a very full life is a strangely disorientating experience.
From Rome to Maastricht: The Essential Guide to the European Union, Alexander Noble, Warner £6.99
Maybe not most people's idea of bedtime reading, but the amount of information crammed into this little book makes it a must for anyone who wants a quick run-down on the difference between the European Council and the Commission (neither of which is the same as the Parliament, of course), or needs a precis of the Cecchini Report before touching down in Brussels. One for budding Eurocrats, or xenophobes seeking a cure for low blood pressure.
The Roads Taken, Fred Setterberg, Interlink Books, £8.99
A literary tour of the U.S. which begins on Kerouac's couch and ends in the San Francisco of Jack London. But this is as much a memoir as a travel book; the mendacious fan of Huckleberry Finn with whom Setterberg works on writing publicity for "Dead End, North Dakota" is as fascinating as Twain himself. Thoughtful, idiosyncratic and enormously engaging, this is a book that will make you want to check out the places and writers for yourself. If you're going to the States this summer, make sure it's in your suitcase.
Heading Inland, Nicola Barker, Faber and Faber £8.99
The opening story in this intriguing collection is about a pregnant woman who finds she can unzip her womb, thus providing a convenient place to hide stolen goods when she goes shop-lifting. Barker's stories are often hilariously funny, yet also unsettling, and written with an exquisite eye for unexpected detail. Their deceptive simplicity is the mark of a truly skilled observer, for whom the most ordinary activities of daily life can easily erupt into farcical chaos.
Omon Ra, Victor Pelevin, Faber and Faber £6.99
Equally bizarre and wonderful is this surreal vision of the Soviet space effort, in which cosmonaut Omon Ra receives lectures on the Marxist theory of the Moon and gets a "reincarnation check" while training for his own ascent. A black comedy which describes heroic soldiers dressing as bears so as to provide sport for visiting Americans, the book nevertheless maintains a haunting wistfulness, as Omon prepares for his encounter with immortality. A memorable work by a writer of considerable power.
Cyril Connolly: A Nostalgic Life, Clive Fisher, Papermac £12.00
Connolly's standing as a literary critic and aesthete was immense while he lived, and rapidly shrivelled once he was no longer around to support it. The one question left unanswered by Fisher's abundant trawl through the minutiae of Connolly's life is whether the subject really merits such treatment. Even taking his wit and genius on trust, one is left with the unfavourable impression of a man whose ambition remained greater than anything he had the means to achieve.
Exciting Times in the Accounts Department, Paul Vaughan, Sinclair-Stevenson £9.99
The title is a quote overheard at the pharmaceutical company where Vaughan worked in the early fifties, and in this second volume of autobiography he captures very well the quaint gentility of that era. Vaughan moved on to become the voice of Horizon and Kaleidoscope, and the book is particularly revealing about the latter. Given the nose-picking habits of at least one of the contributors, it's just as well the programme is on the radio.
The Next 500 Years, Adrian Berry, Headline £7.99
Mostly this is just a fat hotchpotch of dreams and factoids gleaned from other books in the genre. We'll terra-form a few planets, download our brains onto computer when our bodies pack in, etc. In fact, the world will look uncannily like its representation in virtually every sci-fi book and film you can imagine. The one thing we can be sure of is that all this futurology will look very silly well before the year 2500.
That Bad Woman, Clare Boylan, Abacus £5.99
The blurb earnestly describes these stories as "focusing on the dilemmas of contemporary women and issues of responsibility and choice"; in fact Boylan's scope is much wider, her tone lighter, and her fiction springs exuberantly from the characters who inhabit it. A pity though that this collection is rather uneven in quality; the best pieces are satisfyingly open-ended, and thought-provoking in their moral neutrality, but Boylan rather too frequently gives in to the lure of neat structure and cute endings.
The Bad Samaritan, Robert Barnard, HarperCollins £4.99
A vicar's wife loses her faith one day, so casually it's more like she's dropped the soap in the bath. She goes away to think it over, and teams up with a Bosnian refugee whose dialogue is uncomfortably reminiscent of Manuel in Fawlty Towers. Her heresy and his bad accent make them obvious suspects when a body turns up shortly afterwards. One can only regret that a few more of the priggish and lifeless characters in this book aren't felled before the end.
When the Sky Fell: In Search of Atlantis, Rand and Rose Flem-Ath, Orion £6.99
Ancient myth has been reinterpreted and distorted in order to fit any number of theories. The latest is that Atlantis was really Antarctica until the earth's crust went for a walk twelve thousand years ago. On geological catastrophism and mass extinction the authors say some interesting things, but when they try to argue that Atlantean's built the sphinx before taking an early bath, the ground beneath them starts to look as shaky as their supposed ancient cataclysm.
Between Friends: The correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975, Ed. Carol Brightman, Secker and Warburg, £12.99
McCarthy was an irrepressible letter writer, energetically describing her travels, work in progress, and troubled love life. Some of Arendt's replies have been lost, and she was more often inclined to use the phone, but the letters which survive are enthused with a warmth and humanity equal to McCarthy's, and profound philosophical insight. Covering everything from literature and current affairs to the difference between cafe au lait and cafe creme, this is a monument to the friendship of two outstanding women.
The Death of Yugoslavia, Laura Silber and Allan Little, Penguin £7.99
It was Arendt (describing Eichmann) who coined the phrase "the banality of evil", and there are few places where it can be better applied than in the Balkan tragedy. This book (an updated accompaniment to the BBC series) is a meticulous account of the second rate demagogues who brought about a cataclysm, and the timid leaders who appeased them. No-one emerges unsullied. A depressing tale, but one which we ignore at our peril.
Seduction Theory, Thomas Beller, Abacus £6.99
Two strands run through this impressive debut collection; five stories about the adolescence and early adulthood of Alex Fader alternate with a series of tales following the uncertain sexual negotiations of various New Yorkers. The Fader stories are often touching, but it's in his dissection of faltering relationships that Beller is at his shrewdest and most memorable. Taking both the male and female viewpoints, he builds a picture of misunderstanding which is excruciatingly familiar and exquisitely observed.
Hot Chicken Wings, Jyl Lynn Felman, Virago, £6.99
Another first collection, by a writer whose work draws strongly on her religion and sexuality. The longest and most developed story deals with the relationship between the young narrator and her grandfather, and is rich in Jewish family atmosphere; more striking however is the brief and very funny tale of a goyim-hating lesbian attending a farcical session of Transactional Analysis, which makes her realise that she's probably in better shape than the therapist.
Flesh and Blood, Michael Cunningham, Penguin £6.99
This family saga spanning a century is essentially soap opera, but is nevertheless beautifully done. A Greek immigrant and his Italian-American wife have three children; one daughter achieves material comfort without fulfilment in her childless marriage, another loses herself in New York low life, while their brother goes to Harvard, comes out as gay, and eventually finds true love. The swiftly moving narrative and skillfully crafted prose make for an involving read.
Good Reading Guide, Kenneth McLeish, Bloomsbury, £6.99
Ideal for dippers and browsers, this is a new edition of the book which provides a brief description of the listed authors' works, and gives pointers towards other novels which are (allegedly) similar in some way. For the serious self-improver there are menus of suggested reading by topic ("Egypt", "The Elderly"...). Highly contentious, of course, but disagreeing with the editor's choices is all part of the fun, and as a guidebook for timid or bewildered readers it's invaluable.
The Bruce, John Barbour, Trans. George Eyre-Todd, Mercat Press £11.99
Robert the Bruce: A Scots Life, Glenn Telfer, Argyll Publishing £6.99
Barbour has been called the Scots Chaucer; his 1376 verse biography is reissued in a 1907 prose translation which, though very much of its time, is still highly readable. Telfer's book, on the other hand, is written in Scots (the first such attempt since Barbour), and is aimed primarily at younger readers. Of the most famous Bruce legend, Telfer says sceptically: "Can ye really see sic a hard heidit realist like Bruce, sic a michty will, needing a spider tae renew his ambition?"
A Red River, Liz Heron, Virago £6.99
Originally from Scotland, Heron has lived in several countries, and her work reflects a nomadic spirit steeped in world literature. The title novella is a tale of unrest at a British-run mine in nineteenth century Spain; other stories are set in Paris, Venice and Budapest. Heron's intelligent, crafted prose is sometimes too detached for comfort, but is particularly effective in a piece where Breton, Gramsci and a pair of condemned anarchists are randomly juxtaposed in a haunting collage.
Idlewild, Mark Lawson, Picador £5.99
Idlewild was the original name of JFK airport, and Lawson's amusing alternative history supposes that both Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe have survived into old age, reuniting to reflect on their failed careers. Lawson doesn't quite manage the fearsome task of bringing the two legends back to life, but entertains with sharp prose and a tangle of subplots which includes Dukakis still driving a squad car, and an incumbent president who believes he was once abducted by aliens.
Windfall, Helen Stevenson, Sceptre £5.99
Narrator Marguerite, a writer of travel guides, is the elderly proprietor of a farmhouse bed and breakfast in the Midi, to which come Elizabeth - a classical singer bearing the ashes of her former lover - and Aiden, a stiff schoolteacher escaping scandal with a pupil. Marguerite's tone - reflective and richly allusive - is well captured, if at times rather mannered and somewhat distancing in effect. It's in the story of the hapless Aiden that Stevenson's warmth, wit and insight come to the fore.
Virtually Normal, Andrew Sullivan, Picador £6.99
Sullivan's five year editorship of America's New Republic was never short of controversy, and his recent resignation coincided with his announcement that he is HIV positive. His book is an argument in favour of complete "public equality" between gays and heterosexuals, which would exclude positive discrimination, and allow for homosexual marriage. His attempts to embrace what he sees as the most constructive aspects of liberal and conservative thought have provoked criticism from both sides, but Sullivan's thesis is well reasoned, his case clearly made.
The Search for the Grail, Graham Phillips, Arrow £5.99
If the author is correct, then the Grail is 6cm high, made of onyx, and looks disturbingly like a Habitat egg cup. Furthermore its present owner, a 24 year old graphic designer, is the direct descendant of King Arthur. Barmy this may sound, but Phillips' book is an informative and surprisingly persuasive tour through history and legend from the fall of the Roman Empire to Robin Hood, with Gnosticism, the Tarot and a clever bit of code breaking thrown in. Who knows, perhaps Excalibur is that rusty old thing in the garden shed.
Dreamhouse, Alison Habens, Minerva £6.99
Celia Small decided at age eight that all she wanted was a husband and a fitted kitchen, and now at last her engagement party has arrived. Unfortunately one of her housemates simultaneously holds an "Alice in Wonderland" bash featuring some heavily adulterated jam tarts. Celia feels a bit peckish, and finds herself catapulted into a hallucinogenic and highly comical encounter with the White Rabbit and friends. The idea is slightly over-extended, but Habens' linguistic fireworks never lose their sparkle.
A Conspiracy of Hope, Michael Cannon, Serpent's Tail £9.99
Jamie is an endearing layabout who leaves school at sixteen and despite his best efforts lands a job in a factory. Rachel is a middle class undergraduate, just as eager to experience life to the full. Their disparate backgrounds, described in their own voices, are evoked with skill and humour. When they come together in Greece, however, the emotional chemistry fails to convince; a case of two brightly coloured ingredients producing a disappointing shade of brown.
The Penguin Book of Irish Comic Writing, Ed. Ferdia Mac Anna, Penguin £8.99
Joyce, Beckett and Flann O'Brien are there of course, as well as Roddy Doyle, Spike Milligan, and a host of other fine writers, represented by short stories or novel extracts. "Comic" is meant in the widest sense, embracing the genial humour of Patrick Campbell as well as the extremely dark world of Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy. Given the rich supply of material from which to choose, it seems incredible that such an anthology has never been compiled previously.
Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, Joan Ryan, Women's Press £8.99
Ryan exposes the grim reality behind the mincing pixies of Olympic gymnastics and skating. Anorexia and attempted suicide, stress fractures and crushed vertebrae are all par for the course; for the particularly unlucky there may be paralysis or even death. Militaristic training and pushy parents help keep the reluctant in line. One unrepentant mother, whose daughter had to quit when her spine packed in, says nostalgically, "Sometimes I'd like to adopt a kid and do it all over again".
The Unkindest Cut, Joe Queenan, Picador £6.99
Film critic Queenan set out to make his own movie for less than $7000, using his neighbours as actors. Twelve Steps to Death (the rather awful screenplay is included in full) eventually cost $50,000, not including the tab for the festival which Queenan staged in a local school so as to screen it. The glowing review in Movieline was free, but Queenan wrote it himself, under a pseudonym. An amusing account of doomed obsession, and a warning to would-be directors everywhere.
Night Surfing, Fiona Capp, Allen & Unwin £7.99
Nothing to do with the internet, thank heavens, this is surfing of the strictly aquatic variety. In an Australian beach resort, university drop-out Hannah finds a job in a cafe and meets Jake and Marcus, a widowed father and son who emigrated years earlier from Liverpool. Jake teaches Hannah to surf, tentative romance blossoms, then sours. The story is low-key, the atmosphere of the beach and the closely-knit community who inhabit it is hauntingly created.
The Cove Shivering Club, Michael Curtin, Fourth Estate £8.99
The water is distinctly colder in this witty gem, centring on a men-only swimming cove in Limerick. Nash and Tucker, childhood friends, are now a writer and printer respectively, the latter with a pathological hatred of banks. The Cove is threatened by a move to admit women, and Nash undertakes some frenzied lobbying of old fellow swimmers who will vote on the issue. The results are highly comic, and told with a flawless ear for bar-room banter.
Sam Golod, Sophia Creswell, Sceptre £9.99
Natalie works as an English teacher in St. Petersburg, hangs out with a group of struggling artists, and comes into contact with a sub-culture ranging from disaffected pot smokers to big time mafyosi, for whom violence and murder are commonplace. While not quite hitting the mark either as a love story or as a thriller, Creswell's debut novel compensates with its rich portrayal of contemporary life in Russia, where Sam Golod (meaning "self hunger") is the presiding force.
Stanley Spencer, Kenneth Pople, HarperCollins £14.99
Spencer's visionary paintings, in which Biblical scenes are transposed to modern suburbia, were deeply personal and meticulously planned compositions. Pople's analyses are revealing, his conjectures persuading, and he gives an absorbing account of the events and impressions in the artist's life which often provided inspiration for the paintings. An energetic, sometimes frustrating companion, Spencer nevertheless emerges as an endearing and profoundly honest man, struggling to find a balance between lofty idealism and the practicalities of everyday life.
Knitting with Dog Hair, Kendall Crolius and Anne Montgomery, Hutchinson £6.99
Yes, this book really does tell you how to gather up all those hairs which pooch is wont to shed, spin them into yarn and knit attractive garments. The Golden Retriever scarf certainly looks appropriately fetching, the Samoyed cardigan's nice too. There are patterns galore, and a comprehensive guide to breeds. If Rover is an Afghan you could have a goldmine on your hands, but trying to get a tea cosy from a Rottweiler is not recommended.
Handsome Men are Slightly Sunburnt, Frank Ronan, Sceptre £5.99
The provocative phrase which gives this collection its title is spoken by a reminiscing grandmother. Ronan's writing is delicate and subtle, and these stories set in his native Ireland are concerned more with nuance of character than the evolution of plot. Sometimes the tone can have an earnestness which is distancing, but in those episodes which seem closest to personal experience, Ronan writes with warmth and humour.
The Shadow of Desire, Rebecca Stowe, Sceptre £9.99
Ginger, biographer of neglected female novelists, is an American living in London who is loosely involved with an aggressive stand-up comic. She returns home for Christmas with her parents, who still mourn a lost son. Exuberantly written, Stowe's novel is crammed with observation, though much of it of a fleetingly superficial kind. A striking voice, but the lack of narrative tension makes for a somewhat uninvolving read.
The Dishwasher, Dannie M Martin, Indigo £5.99
The author, like the hero of his novel, is a graduate of the US penal system. Bill Malone has come out after fourteen years, with no work experience other than dishwashing. His relationship with the mother and daughter who run the motel where he stays eventually leads him into confrontation with some extremely unpleasant people. Martin's writing shows confidence and control, never pushing at the boundaries of the genre, but comfortable within their limit.
How To Write Crime, Ed. Marele Day, Allen & Unwin £7.99
If you don't fancy a spell inside for the authentic touch, this is a more comfortable way to start. Rule one, of course, is don't waste time reading about how it's done when you ought to be writing instead, but this book's twelve contributors provide plenty of handy hints. Each chapter concludes with a few worthy exercises which many will find helpful, and the "common faults" are a check-list to bring a blush to any writer's cheek.
The Sportswriter, Patrick Collins, Virgin £7.99
This is a compilation of columns written over the last twenty years, mostly for the Mail on Sunday, and the ninety-odd two thousand worders assembled here show that Collins mastered all the strokes fairly early on. The format makes for a rather exhausting read, even for the most die-hard sports fan (which I'm not); most will probably prefer a dip-and browse approach. It's all there, from Ally's Army ("solace in whisky and self pity") to Tyson's return.
Whit, Iain Banks, Abacus, £6.99
Isis Whit is a nineteen year old member of the Luskentyrian sect, whose followers hold February 29th sacred, sleep in hammocks for maximum discomfort, and worship a small jar of holy embrocation. Sent to London to locate a missing cult member, Isis comes into contact with all the trappings of modern life which the sect disowns. The ensuing culture clash doesn't quite yield its full comic potential, but Banks spins his yarn with customary verve.
The Naked Madonna, Jan Wiese, Panther £5.99
The ingredients are promising: rediscovered Renaissance masterpiece, tantalising documents unearthed in the Vatican, and all of it recounted by a convicted murderer. The core of the book is an historical nest of tales, cleverly related in alternating voices. The contemporary narrative is less successful; some art-historical howlers undermine credibility, and the loose threads ultimately become a frazzle.
Nearly Roadkill, Caitlin Sullivan & Kate Bornstein, Serpent's Tail £8.99
Using multiple typefaces to mimic on-screen text, this interactively written cybernovel tells the tale of two Net surfers whose aversion to compulsory registration turns them into outlaws. Much play is made of the Net's potential for disguising or transforming gender and identity, but there's little else to hold the attention. Like the Net itself, the result of this worthy experiment is slow, frustrating, and full of stuff you don't want to know.
Monogamy, Adam Phillips, Faber and Faber £6.99
Very odd, this. Phillips, a clinical psychotherapist, has written a slim volume consisting of 121 "aphorisms" (varying in length between a paragraph and a page) on the theme of monogamy and infidelity. Many of these densely phrased observations could have you and your partner(s) thinking for hours, but all too often the gnomic utterances veer perilously close to smugness. Thought for the day: "Infidelity makes a life of absolute monogamy essential."
Naturalist, Edward O. Wilson, Penguin £8.99
The divorce of Wilson's parents when he was seven made him a loner, loss of sight in one eye led him to pay increased attention to small objects. Such incidents helped shape his future as a world expert on ants and one of the founders of sociobiology. Applying his theories to human society, Wilson caused a furore which he describes with humour and grace. This is an outstanding book by a great scientist who writes beautifully, communicating passion and wonder with disarming humility.
Audrey Hepburn's Neck, Alan Brown, Sceptre £5.99
Brown lived in Japan for several years, and his debut novel is rich in detail highlighting the chaotic East-West mix of contemporary urban life there. Toshi, an illustrator of manga comics, only dates Western girls (Hepburn being his ideal), but an affair with his English teacher goes unpleasantly wrong. Inter-cutting with Toshi's memories of rural childhood, this is a simple story told with elegance and restraint, examining Western habits through Toshi's bemused eyes.
The Dead Girl In A Lace Dress, Jeanne Hyvrard, Edinburgh University Press £9.95
Using an extreme form of stream-of-consciousness which the translator aptly describes as "chaos writing", Hyvrard's brief novel describes the damaging relationship between the narrator and her domineering mother, depicted as the "gluey stuff that get's into everything I do". The dense, broken style is particularly effective in its use of bodily images, although Hyvrard's complex meditations on language frequently run round in frustratingly tight circles.
Time Shifting, Stephan Rechtschaffen, Rider £8.99
No, not another book that tells you how to cram more into your day; this one is more likely to make you want to throw away your watch. Rechtschaffen, a practitioner of holistic medicine, advocates an appreciation of the moment as a cure for self-inflicted "time poverty", and shows how it can help reduce stress and improve health, work and relationships. The mix of Zen wisdom and practical advice makes for a thought-provoking and persuasive read.
The Bronski House, Philip Marsden, Flamingo £6.99
Zofia Bronska was born in 1922 in the Polish town of Wilno, now the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. Her story, and that of her mother Helena, was shaped by Poland's troubled history and shifting borders. Using Helena's diaries as the basis for his research, Marsden goes with Zofia to revisit the country they fled in 1939. Reading more like a novel than a conventional travel book, the result is a gripping and memorable account.
Frontiers of Complexity, Peter Coveney & Roger Highfield, Faber and Faber £9.99
Mind-bending ideas from a wide range of disciplines demonstrate the way in which neural networks, genetic algorithms and artificial life are providing new insights into Darwinian evolution and cognitive science, as well as having applications to areas as diverse as earthquake prediction, telephone networking and making better concrete. Entertaining and clearly written, this is an excellent introduction to a huge and fascinating subject.
What's Up God? Simon Louvish, Indigo £5.99
The Archangel Gabriel appears on every television set in the world to announce that the Day of Judgement is scheduled soon. Paxman skeptically quizzes him on Newsnight, but everyone else sells up and starts trying to be good before the Resurrection begins. Louvish sets a frenetic pace, and has a lot of fun with the idea. The faithful may be offended, non-believers with a juvenile sense of humour will be amused.
Morality Play, Barry Unsworth, Penguin £5.99
Mediaeval players arrive at a town where a boy has been murdered and a woman is about to be hanged. Unconvinced of her guilt, the company perform their own interpretation of events for the villagers. Unsworth raises the simple scenario to lofty metaphysical heights as the players enact successive versions of the crime in their quest for truth, creating a hauntingly atmospheric whodunit enriched by bleak frozen landscapes and agreeably rank odours.
Valkyries, Paulo Coelho, Thorsons £6.99
Brazilian novelist and mystic Coelho claims his latest book is strictly based on fact, in which case one can only pity his poor wife. Accompanying him into the Mojave Desert in search of spiritual enlightenment, she almost dies from dehydration before the couple encounter a band of leather-clad female bikers (the Valkyries, no less) whose ideas for Paulo's personal growth aren't quite what Mrs. Coelho had in mind. Totally barmy but oddly compelling.
The Beauty of the Beastly, Natalie Angier, Abacus £7.99
Forty one of Angier's New York Times science articles are gathered here on topics ranging from cell death to a new evolutionary theory of menstruation. Serious biology in a style which is chatty, urbane and witty, each chapter crammed with information you may enjoy quoting one day. Length of an uncoiled strand of human DNA: three feet. Animal with biggest brain in relation to body size: the sheep. Wonderful.
Make-Believe Town, David Mamet, Faber and Faber £9.99
The playwright here turns essayist: beguiling (sometimes hilarious) reminiscences of misspent youth, theatrical acquaintances and magical restaurants are coupled with pieces in which Mamet considers art, politics and Jewish identity; questioning the "innocence" supposedly lost by America after the Oklahoma bombing, or arguing that the film of Schindler's List is "emotional pornography". A hugely enjoyable collection, in which the humanity of Mamet's observations is as impressive as the elegance of his prose.
Moo Pak, Gabriel Josipovici, Carcanet £6.95
Damien Anderson recounts the observations of his friend Jack Toledano during their walks together across London. A single paragraph stretching over a hundred and fifty pages, the book is an astonishing technical achievement, in which Toledano discusses life and literature, and outlines his proposed history of Moor Park (host to Swift, experimental chimps and wartime code breakers). Touchingly lugubrious and stylistically stunning.
The Persian Pickle Club, Sandra Dallas, Arrow £5.99
A group of women meet each week to stitch quilts in a small Kansas town during the Depression. Among them is the narrator Queenie, whose charming but uniform voice irons out tragedy and triviality into a seamless whole, encompassing poverty-stricken families on the move, domestic tiffs and rivalries, and a newcomer whose aspirations to journalism are rewarded by the discovery of a corpse.
The Faber Book of Science, ed John Carey, Faber and Faber £9.99
Smart idea, getting a professor of English to compile an anthology of writing about or inspired by science. As well as the great discoverers and popularisers from Galileo to Richard Dawkins (many of them models of lucidity), we have Vladimir Nabokov (entomologist), Primo Levi (chemist) and Miroslav Holub (immunologist). A superb collection, and recommended reading for anyone still trying to get mileage out of that wretched "two-cultures" debate.
The Way We Live Now, Richard Hoggart, Pimlico £7.99
Contrary to propaganda or even appearance, Hoggart observes, the working class still makes up the same proportion of the population as always. His theme is the way in which class identity, language and culture have been infected by relativism and exploited by politicians. Sometimes there is an oddly fogeyish quality (a solemn breakdown of Radios 1 to 4 and their characteristics), but this is an admirable and illuminating collection of essays.
Neolithic and Bronze Age Scotland, P.J. Ashmore, Batsford £15.99
The author outlines what is known of the lifestyles of Scotland's earliest inhabitants, carefully explaining the archaeological techniques used to draw inferences about the communities who have left us so many stone circles and burial cairns to ponder and admire. Large format and richly illustrated, it's crammed with information, written with scientific open-mindedness, and makes a good antidote to the mystical humbug which the subject so often attracts.
The Star Fraction, Ken MacLeod, Legend £5.99
Moh Kohn is aided in his security work by a customised smart gun with a habit of talking back. An assignment protecting animal experimenter Janis Tain ends with him sniffing some psycho-active chemicals, and her on the run. MacLeod's future dystopia is complex beyond description; an ideological vacuum into which Trotskyism, fundamentalist religion and militant technophobia are sucked and mangled. The writing is frenetic and witty, the plot less important than the fun of the ride.
The Tartar Steppe, Dino Buzzati, Carcanet £9.95
Lieutenant Drogo is posted to a remote fort overlooking the Tartar steppe, a desert shrouded in mist. Unable to obtain a transfer, he finds time quickly slipping by, and comes to accept the absurd extremes to which military ritual is taken. First published in Italy in 1945, Buzzati's novel has as its background Mussolini's colonial adventures in Africa, and shows the clear influence of Kafka in its generalised setting and static, dream-like narrative.
The Tooth Fairy, Graham Joyce, Signet £5.99
Sam puts his tooth under the pillow, and wakes up to find the eponymous fairy, a smelly and highly unpleasant character fond of swearing and exposing himself. As Sam hits puberty the fairy changes sex and becomes an object of fantasy. More quaint than spooky, this is a rites-of-passage teen novel in which the supernatural element merely feels tacked on. Charming in places, but not one that'll keep you awake at night.
Immediate Action, Andy McNab, Corgi £5.99
The follow-up to Bravo Two Zero recounts the pre-Gulf War part of McNab's SAS career. All the weaponry and paraphernalia are described in detail, and also the boredom of drinking tea and watching Blockbuster between bursts of sudden violent activity in Northern Ireland. Thrill-seeking readers will find what they're after, but the tone is unsensational and icily detached. Successive marriages crumble in the background, and the death of comrades is a "downer".
The Book of Modern Scandal, ed Bruce Palling, Orion £6.99
Not as tacky as it might sound, though if you want the full Camillagate/Squidgy transcripts then they're here along with Fergie, Mellor and the rest. "Modern" in this context extends back to Byron, and respectable book-buyers can justify a purchase thanks to the plentiful inclusion of historically significant items from Dreyfus to the Iran-Contra affair. The rest of us however can simply enjoy thumbing through the salacious bits.
Of Wee Sweetie Mice and Men, Colin Bateman, HarperCollins £5.99
Continuing in the blackly humorous vein which Bateman established in Divorcing Jack and Cycle of Violence, his third novel tells the story of Belfast boxing champion Fat Boy McMaster, who travels to New York to fight Tyson, accompanied by journalist Dan Starkey. McMaster's innocent wisecracks soon cause trouble, including death threats and the kidnap of his wife, and the ensuing mayhem (involving the IRA, whaling, and a gruesome use of garden clippers) is told by the hapless Starkey with dry wit and self-deprecating irony. It's fast, funny and gripping, and you don't have to like boxing.
The Influencing Engine, Richard Hayden, Black Swan £6.99
Remember who was the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated? Spencer Perceval in 1812, an event which inspires Hayden's novel. Also true (apparently) are the ravings of one James Tilly Matthews, who spoke of a malign "Influencing Engine" which could magnetically alter the minds of unfortunate victims such as himself. Hayden puts it all together in a tale of revolutionary intrigue - a brilliant idea, even if the telling of it creaks as much the great engine itself.
Now You Must Dance, Bruce Leeming, Scottish Cultural Press £5.95
Willie Devine, newspaper reporter and ardent nationalist, takes a fancy to Gill, a teacher from a nice family in Bearsden. Also after her is Jamie, a flash prat who's returned to Scotland in his Mercedes. There's lots of bar-room ranting about independence, and a terrorist sub-plot, none of which helps to make the characters particularly interesting. We're assured that Willie's articles "leap off the page", but unfortunately the same can't be said of his own story.
The Jung Cult, Richard Noll, Fontana £7.99
Noll's scholarly attack begins by surveying the mystical ideas, such as Theosophy and vitalism, which permeated Europe during Jung's formative years and influenced his thought. Nudism and hiking didn't become part of his theory, but sun worship and spiritualism did, according to Noll, who reaches the provocative conclusion that Jungism itself now amounts to an organised religion. Even if you don't care for the debunking tone, the information assembled here is fascinating.
Cafe Europa, Slavenka Drakulic, Abacus £6.99
A Croatian journalist observes everyday life in eastern Europe. We see surliness in Sofia, elderly mourners at Ceausescu's grave, and everywhere the lust for Western consumerism of which Drakulic herself is a great enthusiast. Her observations can sometimes seem disagreeably snobbish (peasants don't understand hygiene, she alleges), and when she talks of the "murder" of a few old trees in Zagreb one can only question her taste, nevertheless these frequently perceptive essays reveal much about the culture which has shaped her.
Olivia, Judith Rossner, Warner £5.99
Though never quite living up to the comic promise of its opening, this soap opera with a culinary dimension still offers its fair share of delights. Caroline marries a restaurateur in Italy, but his philandering forces her to return to America, leaving behind their daughter Olivia. The troublesome teenager eventually rejoins mother, whose cookery classes develop into TV success. The traditional ingredients are nicely sauteed, and there are some good hints on improving your risotto.
This Rain Coming, A.J. Verdelle, Women's Press £6.99
Showered with praise when it was published in the US last year, Verdelle's debut is the story of Denise Palms, a black girl living with her grandmother in Virginia in the sixties, amidst a richly described domestic landscape. Returning to her parents and brothers in Detroit, Denise has to cope with an education system which regards her as illiterate. Adopting Denise's vernacular, the book skillfully follows her search for her own voice and identity.
Star Trek Memories, William Shatner and Chris Kreski, Voyager £6.99
How could I resist? The whole sprawling story (episode one goes out on page two hundred and fifty!) as told by James T himself. We find out how much Spock's ears cost, get tantalising glimpses of the parallel universes that were not to be (Bones taking Spock's role, Hawaii Five-O's Jack Lord as Kirk), and learn the secret of the Vulcan neck pinch. One for tribble fanciers everywhere.
Kay's Capital Characters, Albert Morris, Pentland £5.99
John Kay was an eighteenth century Edinburgh barber who exercised his artistic talents by making drawings and prints of his customers and other local characters. Displayed in his window, these gently humorous pictures made him famous, and several hundred were published in book form after his death. Morris's selection resurrects a charming chronicler of Edinburgh life, and the illustrations are accompanied by amusing anecdotes concerning the dandies, eccentrics, balloonists and quacks whom Kay elegantly portrayed.
Sex, Death, Enlightenment, Mark Matousek, Piatkus £8.99
Matousek quit his job at Warhol's Interview magazine when the coming of AIDS made him painfully aware of a spiritual vacuum in his life. Neatly dismissing the glitzy world he abandoned, his autobiography is an uplifting and highly enthralling account of his attempts to cope with fear and loss, a journey in which he is guided by the example of an Indian mystic, and which offers hope without resorting to easy answers. A courageous, rewarding and thought-provoking book.
The Great Shadow, Mario de Sa-Carneiro, Dedalus £8.99
Lisbon-born Sa-Carneiro, a friend of the poet Pessoa, was only twenty-six when he committed suicide in Paris in 1916. His short stories depict madness, death, erotic jealousy and fin de siècle decadence in fragmented and luminously synaesthetic prose. Almost anticipating Kafka in his fantasies, he describes a scientist killed by the machinery of an invisible parallel world, and a poet whose verses fly to the stars leaving blank pages in their wake.
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, Kenzaburo Oe, Picador £5.99
In wartime Japan a group of reformatory boys are evacuated to a remote village whose inhabitants regard them as little better than vermin. When plague breaks out the villagers flee, leaving the boys to their fate. Friendship, rivalry and fear are beautifully depicted as the abandoned boys fight for survival. Published in Japan in 1958, this haunting parable was Nobel Laureate Oe's first novel, a remarkable debut by an outstanding figure in world literature.
60oN (Diary of a Madman), Yusef Szafki (& N.V. Gogol), dualchas £4.99
Why make a translation of Gogol's classic short story, then augment and distort it with an equal amount of new material to create a novella? The only justification can be the quality of the end product, and Szafki's inspired madness easily passes the test. Call it a deconstructionist critique or postmodernist pastiche if you like, or just enjoy the talking dogs, plague of buttons and conversations with Newton. A feast of calculated insanity.
The Adoption Reader, ed Susan Wadia-Ells, Women's press £8.99
The thirty or so voices collected in this American anthology are divided into three sections: birth mothers, adoptive mothers and adopted daughters, the contributing writers telling their own stories sometimes in a consciously dramatised or poetic style, but always with sincerity. Frequently very poignant, many of the pieces in this valuable collection give a positive sense of the strength and fulfilment which the writers have drawn from their experience.
Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel C. Dennett, Penguin £9.99
Dennett conducts a leisurely and wide-ranging exploration of the philosophical implications of natural selection for our understanding of life the universe and everything. Explaining that all people in the world today must be descended from a single man and woman, he reaches the intriguing conclusion that "Y chromosome Adam" and "mitochondrial Eve" lived centuries apart, and were special only because if a mammoth had trodden on either then none of us would now be here.
As Luck Would Have It, Samuel Lock, Jonathan Cape £8.99
Lock waited until his seventh decade before producing his first novel, and what a treat it is. Richard is the virginal and endearingly naive flatmate of worldly-wise Chuck in fifties London. Richard's other friendships arouse Chuck's jealousy, and the delicately camp comedy of manners which ensues is brilliantly sustained by the narrative voice of Richard, who touchingly reflects on his orphanage upbringing and wittily dissects the story as it unfolds.
The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman, Andrzej Szczypiorski, Phoenix £5.99
Irma Seidenman is a Jew in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, her Aryan looks and forged papers enabling her to avoid persecution until she is recognised by an informer. The novel traces the events which follow her arrest, and simultaneously follows the paths of those around her, creating a richly engrossing patchwork of interconnecting lives in which an individual's destiny can be foretold and pondered. Szczypiorski's observations, shaped by personal experience, are often profoundly moving.
The End of the Story, Lydia Davis, Serpent's Tail £8.99
The narrator describes the novel she is writing about an affair many years ago, and through the uncertainty of her recollection and the piecing together of material from her memory, we come to learn her story. Everything remains open to doubt, and the effect is to create a haunting, mesmerising meditation on love, loss and the creative process, in a style more usually associated with French rather than American literature.
The Day Before Yesterday, Colin Tudge, Pimlico £9.99
"Five million years of human history", we are promised, though the most recent several thousand are understandably condensed. Tudge's cautionary tale shows how geology, climate and ecology slowly shaped the evolution of our fellow animal species, before the apes came down from the trees and started elbowing out the giant rhinoceroses, three-toed horses and other wonders now extinct. Mammoths just about made it into the age of the pharaohs, apparently.
The Wrestling, Simon Garfield, Faber and Faber £9.99
Garfield tells the story of the "sport" through the voices of the wrestlers themselves - Pallo, Haystacks, Nagasaki et al - nostalgically recalling the good old days of flying handbags before the decline towards today's untelevised side-show which still struggles on in half-deserted halls. Was it all rigged? The usual response is "don't even ask", but the book leaves little doubt that the showmen and psychopaths of the ring took and gave a lot of genuine pain.
The Anatomy Lesson, John David Morley, Abacus £6.99
When Rembrandt famously treated the subject they were public spectacles. Morley's novel concerns two brothers in present day Amsterdam, the eldest of whom finds himself to be dying of cancer and is inspired by the painting to donate his body to science on condition that friends and relatives come to watch the dissection. A grotesque and implausible idea, its deeper potential is squandered in a narrative more concerned with kid brother's love life, and striving too often for modish nihilism.
Dream Boy, Jim Grimsley, Black Swan £6.99
Nathan's family moves to a new home in rural America, where he quickly falls in love with older school friend Roy, helping him with homework, spending nights in the woods together with Roy's uncouth buddy Burke, and incurring parental anger and concern. The environment is one of fundamentalist religion and small-town values, and Grimsley's portrayal of secretive first love with all its attendant anxieties and jealousies is sensitive but unexceptional.
The Faber Book of Pop, ed. Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage, Faber and Faber £14.99
This eight hundred page doorstopper - a compendious anthology of press articles and book extracts - will no doubt be thudding into a few stockings this Christmas. Compiled with the "cultural studies" agenda very much in mind, its marvellous over-abundance should ensure something for everyone, whether it's tales of sixties clubland, the froth of Jacko's wedding (Hello! magazine), or Hunter S. Thompson gagging at "Joy to the World".
The Price of Meat, Danny Penman, Gollancz £9.99
Penman's approach is partisan - farmers are motivated solely by financial greed (whereas writers aren't?) - and his book will probably find its most enthusiastic audience amongst vegetarians and animal rights advocates. Even so, there's much here that is of importance to any meat eater seeking a healthy and humane diet, and if BSE still hasn't put you off, this unsavoury catalogue of artificial hormones, antibiotics and needless cruelty just might.
The Loch Ness Monster: The Evidence, Steuart Campbell, Birlinn £6.99
Romantics may be disappointed by Campbell's book, a scrupulous analysis of the "evidence" which eventually leads him to conclude that there isn't really any at all. Rather like an extended research paper in style, the book systematically examines eyewitness reports, photographs and other data, pointing out possible explanations or manifest hoaxing. Otters, freak waves and small boats are the usual suspects, but Campbell's careful reasoning is unlikely to deter those who find mystery more appealing than science.
I, Claudia, Marilyn Todd, Pan £4.99
Set in an ancient Rome where people say things like "Up yours missus", Todd's amusing romp is the story of Claudia Seferius, a bored housewife who earns a few sesterces on the side by indulging in high-class prostitution. Clients start getting bumped off, and Claudia sets out to solve the case while she still has any business left. More Up Pompeii! than Robert Graves, the humorous touch injects life into a well-worn formula.
Native Speaker, Chang-rae Lee, Granta £6.99
Henry Park is a Korean private detective in New York whose marriage to speech therapist Lelia is collapsing following the death of their son. Assigned to gather information on charismatic local politician John Kwang, Park joins his staff but finds his allegiance shifting when the fellow Korean comes under violent attack. Transcending the genre through its combination of poignant reflection and hard-boiled plotting, Lee's first novel is outstanding for the assured subtlety of its narrative voice.
PWA: Looking AIDS in the Face, Oscar Moore, Picador £6.99
For two years, until shortly before his death in September, Moore contributed a regular column to the Guardian describing life as a "Person With AIDS", collected here as an inspiring epitaph. Shunning any hint of self pity, his articles seek to inform by being entertaining, and his writing remains stylish and witty even while movingly detailing the indignities of a life which became increasingly dependent upon the help of others.
The Paranormal Source Book, Jenny Randles, Piatkus £9.99
For topics ranging from "Alien abductions" to "Zoological mysteries" (Nessie and friends) there's an account which includes a bibliography and suggestions on how to do your own research. Most intriguingly, each section also gives hints on what to do if you experience the phenomenon yourself, which in the case of "Life after death" or "Spontaneous human combustion" might seem somewhat irrelevant. Devotees and scoffers alike will find much that will intrigue and enthral.
The Daily Telegraph Book of Obituaries, Pan £6.99
The sort of book which you usually come across on a shelf in someone's lavatory, this entertaining collection will be much appreciated by constipated browsers. Eccentricity and good old fashioned pluck are the main criteria of inclusion for the coves, characters and "legends" who feature, such as racing motor-cyclist and aero engineer Beatrice "Tilly" Shilling, or Stanley Green, the man who paraded Oxford Street with his banner proclaiming "Protein makes passion".
Declares Pereira, Antonio Tabucchi, Panther £5.99
The setting is Fascist Lisbon in 1938, where the portly Dr. Pereira quietly edits the arts page of an evening newspaper. He encounters a young philosophy student in need of work, whom he enlists to write future obituaries for writers not yet dead, and soon Pereira finds himself being irresistibly drawn into the political turmoil from which he has been trying to hide. Tabucchi's dispassionate, dryly humorous prose creates a magical and compelling narrative.
Sexuality and Masquerade, ed Emma Wilson, Dedalus £8.99
"Sexual ambiguity" is the catch-all theme of a wide-ranging anthology which includes the gender shifting of Woolf's Orlando and Michele Roberts' Georgina, the intellectualised longings of Proust and Barthes, and the theatricality of Wilde's Dorian Gray, as well as extracts from Anais Nin, Marguerite Duras and many more. The editor provides an extended introduction to this sumptuous array of morsels, which sits firmly at the highbrow end of erotic literature.
The Secret Of This Book, Brian Aldiss, HarperCollins £5.99
More than twenty recent stories are assembled here, with space travel, cybernetic fantasy and mediaevalism being augmented by al reflections on Shakespeare, Sophocles and Gauguin. Aldiss is at his most successful when he avoids cosy humour and instead finds poignancy in memories (real or imagined) or the lofty realms of metaphysical speculation, conveyed in prose whose careful sculpting is as delightful as the alarming originality of his ideas.
The Heiresses of Buccleuch, Maurice Lee Jr., Tuckwell £14.99
Mary and Anna Scott were the young inheritors of the richest estate in seventeenth century Scotland. The precious girls were both married off before their teens, and when Mary died young it was to Anna and her husband, the ill-fated Duke of Monmouth, that the inheritance fell. In a deeply researched story of legal and financial wrangling, Lee shows the extent to which aristocratic marriages of the time were political rather than emotional affairs.
The Straight Furrow, Vivienne Draper, Brandon £6.99
Draper's charming memoir describes her childhood in Northern Ireland in the thirties, the eldest daughter of a Protestant minister. Sent to boarding school in Dublin to avoid the attentions of the farm boy who would use her as a marker post when trying to plough straight, she endures the claustrophobia of a girls' boarding school before returning home as the war approaches. Her simple, touching narrative warmly recaptures the spirit of the period.
Ancestors, Chenjerai Hove, Picador £5.99
A girl born deaf and dumb in an African village in 1850 is the ancestral voice which begins this dream-like novel in which Hove, a Zimbabwean, draws on the rich tradition of African storytelling. Set predominantly in the nineteen sixties and seventies, the novel's male protagonist hears the voices of the past as a warning against his family's plans to leave their homeland, and he comes to appreciate the importance and fragility of his cultural heritage.
The Song Of The Forest, Colin Mackay, Black Ace £6.95
Tradition also underpins Mackay's book, closer to home but just as exotic in effect. In an ancient and magical Scotland a peaceful village community resists the onslaught of evil pillagers by creating an uruisg, a man of clay who will defend them. Mackay's fable, a reworking of the famous Jewish legend of the Golem, is raised beyond conventional "sword and sorcery" by the lyricism and crafted rhetoric of its prose.
Harvest Of The Cold Months, Elizabeth David, Penguin £15.00
The late Mrs. David's "social history of ice and ices" is a fascinating journey beginning with Montaigne's account of wine chilled with snow, and tracing the development of frozen foods via Persian ice houses, the theatrical banquets of the Italian Renaissance and the celebrated coffee houses of Paris, culminating in the birth of the modern industry at the turn of the century. Researched with obsessive zeal, this is a unique and irresistible mixture of history, technology and wicked desserts.
The Tiger Garden, A Book Of Writers' Dreams, ed Nicholas Royle, Serpent's Tail £9.99
Several hundred writers were asked to contribute a dream in aid of Amnesty International, and the results are often comic (Jonathan Coe's gig goes disastrously wrong when his keyboard turns into a pizza), sometimes metaphysical (A.S. Byatt contemplating death in a dream originally belonging to Iris Murdoch), and even prophetic, in Alison Fell's eerie premonition of Lockerbie. An intimate glimpse of the literary mind asleep.
The Definitive I.Q. Test For Dogs, Melissa Miller, Signet £4.99
The pooch scale runs from the moronic (tactfully described as "Blissfully Ignorant") to a MENSA-worthy 140+ ("Canine Genius"), awarded on the basis of questions such as "If your dog could read, which newspaper would it buy?" Not a major contribution to cognitive psychology then, but the book has some amusing anecdotes and includes an equally useful I.Q. test for the dog owner, for whom the ultimate intellectual accolade is "Sensible".
Days of Good Hope, Paul Wilson, Vintage £5.99
A small-town solicitor nearing retirement, Ewan McCarthy is a minor pillar of the community until his involvement with the case of a nuclear power worker fallen victim to leukaemia brings him into conflict with the townspeople, and also unexpectedly revives memories of an American soldier whom McCarthy befriended during the war. Wilson's writing is impressively restrained, his multi-layered plot creating a rich and memorable evocation of the town and its past.
Particle Theory, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, Vintage £6.99
Michael is cosseted by a doting grandmother who takes a particular interest in his bowel movements, even after he leaves home and begins a long search for his vanished Latvian nanny. Meanwhile in Russia, Ivan suffers a brutal upbringing, then escapes to the West where he finds a series of glamorous jobs and equally glamorous girlfriends. The meeting of these two opposites forms the climax of a quirky novel which has moments of considerable wit.
Letter To Daniel, Fergal Keane, Penguin £6.99
Keane's message to his new born son is a deeply moving reflection on his own childhood and the suffering he has witnessed around the world as a correspondent for Radio 4. It is published here along with other dispatches in which Keane charts with unfailing humanity the emergence of Mandela's new South Africa, the horror of Rwanda, or the struggle for democracy in Burma, by showing us the ordinary people and events out of which history is made.
Strange Landscape, A Journey Through The Middle Ages, Christopher Frayling, Penguin £6.99
Being a spin-off from a TV series, the emphasis is on colourful example rather than grand synthesis. St. Francis, Peter Abelard and Dante are the highlights of the tour, though in the absence of moving pictures a discussion of Chartres cathedral feels a bit like reading the guidebook without visiting the place itself. Frayling also considers the legacy of the period, from Tolkien and Eco to Black Sabbath and Monty Python.
Scorn: With Added Vitriol, ed Matthew Paris, Penguin £6.99
Given the editor's credentials, this anthology of insults and putdowns naturally offers plenty of political examples, from "semi-house-trained polecat" (Michael Foot on Norman Tebbit) to "shut up you old windbag" (unattributed, but allowed by the Speaker). Paris's wonderfully browsable collection of bile and derision will also come in handy if you ever need to offend an Iranian, for whom the appropriate formula is: "May a fart be on your beard".
Our Lady Of The Potatoes, Duncan Sprott, Faber and Faber £6.99
Marie-Louise Murphy was immortalised by Boucher's soft-porn painting showing her squirming naked on her tummy, and Sprott's energetic novel tells how this daughter of impoverished Irish immigrants became mistress to Louis XV and found herself catapulted into high society. Striking for the richness of its detail (though sometimes at the expense of the characters themselves), the book is evidently the result of prodigious research, imagination, or both.
Lemona's Tale, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Penguin £5.99
Given the tragic fate of the author (executed in Nigeria in 1995) this story of a condemned murderess was one I very much wanted to like. Unfortunately its atmospheric beginning soon gives way to old-fashioned woman-in-peril soap opera, as the life of the ill-fated heroine is steered by the series of seducers into whose hands she falls. The exhumation of this slight work is a sadly inappropriate tribute to the memory of a courageous man.
Uses and Abuses, Aldo Busi, Faber £7.99
This is the kind of travel writing in which location is of less significance than the thought it inspires. Busi rants about politics and culture, he bitches about celebrities, pursues attractive men tirelessly, and while he isn't always likable he is consistently fascinating, occasionally profound. Chatting up Iceland's president, making a pilgrimage to Rimbaud's grave and getting arrested for indecent acts in London are part of the heady backdrop to a seamless and exhilarating trip.
Global Warming, Paul Brown, Blandford £12.99
The term greenhouse effect was invented in 1827, which nicely illustrates the degree to which politicians lag behind scientists. As the earth's temperature continues to rise we can look forward to hurricanes, malaria and rising seas, which is bad news for the thirty million people in third world countries living less than one metre above the present high tide mark. Brown's account of the science and politics of the subject is thorough, and very alarming.
The Hollywood History of the World, George MacDonald Fraser, Harvill £15.99
It's taken for granted that historical movies are always inaccurate, but Fraser's enjoyable and richly illustrated survey shows that the films often stand up surprisingly well to closer inspection. The chariots in Ben Hur lack team colours, but not much else; Liam Neeson's portrayal of Rob Roy is flawed only by a slight excess of honesty. Braveheart, on the other hand, gets hanged drawn and quartered by Fraser's analysis, as its howlers are grimly enumerated.
Distress, Greg Egan, Phoenix £5.99
There's a plot in here somewhere, about a woman physicist on the brink of the "theory of everything" and a TV cameraman who films through his eyes then downloads via his belly button, but what really counts is the futuristic paraphernalia, the sociology of the mid twenty first century, the biotechnology gone haywire. Egan's hypothetical science never lets up, great fun when it moves the action along, rather tedious when it becomes a lecture.
One For New York, John A. Williams, Payback Press £6.99
This is the semi-autobiographical story of a black man's frustrating efforts to find work and accommodation in fifties New York, originally published in the U.S. as The Angry Ones, though the tone is more one of long-suffering exasperation. A job at a vanity publisher's offers a curious insight into the book trade's dodgy fringes, while the jazz club culture and chaste dating are warmly evocative of the times.
On The Origins Of War, Donald Kagan, Pimlico £15
According to Thucydides, nations go to war out of "honour, fear and interest". Kagan shows how this trio of motives can help us understand past conflicts, taking as examples two ancient wars (the Peloponnesian and Second Punic), two modern (the First and Second World Wars), and one which never happened (the Cuban Missile Crisis). Written with admirable clarity, this outstanding book is a must for anyone with an interest in the subject.
Famous Last Words, ed Sean Costello and Tom Johnstone, Mercat Press £9.99
Compiled from Scotsman obituaries spanning two centuries, this is a fascinating assembly of eulogies for notable Scots, from Walter Scott to Nicholas Fairbairn. Showing how the subjects were regarded in their own time, we find James Watt fulsomely praised while John Logie Baird is strangely under-rated; and although Greyfriars' Bobby is fondly remembered, the absent Charles Rennie Mackintosh was clearly felt to be unworthy of the obituarist's pen.
Explosives In The Service Of Man: Ardeer And The Nobel Heritage, John E Dolan and Miles K Oglethorpe, RCAHMS £5 (inc p&p)
Alfred Nobel set up an explosives factory at Ardeer in Ayrshire in 1871. It became the world's largest, and played an important role in the formation of ICI. This brief illustrated history gives an interesting account of the plant and its production methods, which are explained in some detail. Available by post from RCAHMS, John Sinclair House, 16 Bernard Terrace, Edinburgh EH8 9NX.
Does It Show? Paul Magrs, Chatto and Windus £9.99
The setting for this lightweight comedy is a council estate in north east England, where the first encounter with the residents is rather like being introduced to fifteen people at a party, all of whose names you instantly forget. Scenes are intercut in standard soap-opera style, unravelling amiable if unremarkable plotlines which include a psychic teenager's interest in her gay teacher, a bus driver's romance, and people disguised as women or dogs.
All The Dark Air, Livi Michael, Secker and Warburg £9.99
Inhabiting a similar universe to Magrs' book, the tone of Michael's novel is more subdued, the focus sharper. Julie is an orphan and mother-to-be trying to take control of her life with the support of a New Age self-help group, while her abrasive lover Mick becomes involved with the Socialist Workers via homelessness and drugs. The theme of young motherhood rings true, and the social landscape is convincingly bleak.
Doom Patrols: A Theoretical About Postmodernism, Steven Shaviro, Serpent's Tail £11
At his best (investigating the lack of Dean Martin impersonators) Shaviro is almost as amusing as Barthes. Much of the time though, the essays in this frenetic pick'n'mix tour of the cultural universe (key reference points: Nietzsche, Burroughs and the comic books of Grant Morrison) are more like an audition for Pseuds' Corner, well stocked with literary quotation, but short on genuine analysis or original insight.
One Room In A Castle, Karen Connelly, Black Swan £6.99
Connelly, a Canadian, spent two years travelling in Spain, France and Greece, and her book is an absorbing if slightly over-plump compilation of letters written at the time, mostly for an imaginary reader. These add up to a diary of observations, local details and the kind of random thoughts which travel invites, not always avoiding the pitfall of self-indulgence, but still taking us on an evocative journey among warmly depicted people.
A User's Guide To The Millennium, J. G. Ballard, Flamingo £6.99
Pick of the week, ironically, is an anthology of non- book reviews originally intended for next day's chip wrapper. Ballard often allows himself generous asides and digressions which may have irritated the hell out of some of the reviewed authors, but it helps make this elegant compilation - covering art and cinema, literature and society - into a compulsively readable set of self-contained essays whose breadth and vision do justice to the grandiose title.
The Last Time I Saw Mother, Arlene J. Chai, Headline Review £6.99
A woman living in Australia is summoned home by her mother in the Philippines in order to learn the truth about her origins, and the story unfolds through the alternating voices of the various women involved. As a narrative device this doesn't quite come off, but it's a forgivable weakness in a warm-hearted and engaging family saga whose turbulent historical background stretches from Japanese occupation to the Marcos regime.
The Statement, Brian Moore, Flamingo £5.99
Pierre Brossard is a Nazi war criminal in present-day France who has kept his freedom thanks to the connivance of cynical politicians and sympathetic clerics. But when he becomes a target for assassination, he finds that the protection of his old friends cannot always be relied upon. The political subtleties, vivid sense of location and twisting plot enable the novel to work both as a superior thriller, and as an exploration of moral values.
All The Days And Nights, William Maxwell, Harvill £10.99
Maxwell, one of American literature's elder statesmen, helped shape the careers of Cheever and Updike during his forty year editorship of the New Yorker, and his own short stories are collected here in an imposing volume. His elegant prose is meticulously crafted, delicate in its observation of the subtle tensions or dependencies between people, and at its most beautiful when contemplating remembered details, such as the furnishings of a beloved room.
Full Circle, Luis Sepulveda, Lonely Planet £5.99
Sepulveda's political views led to persecution in Pinochet's Chile, and a grimly ironic description of his prison experiences forms the first part of this highly absorbing book, followed by an account of his adventures in Ecuador and Patagonia (at one point encountering fellow writer Bruce Chatwin). Sepulveda's writing is firmly within the Latin American spirit; tall tales and magical touches enrich a fascinating travelogue distinguished by the passion and commitment of its author.
From The Heart: Voices Of The American Indian, ed Lee Miller, Pimlico £10
Miller, herself of Cherokee descent, has assembled a large collection of historical quotations from American Indians and settlers which gives a moving insight into the exploitation and genocide experienced by the native Americans, from Montezuma to Sitting Bull. The Indians speak of their plight with dignity and "a straight tongue"; one US General complains: "We came to try and open their eyes and they refuse the light".
Miami Purity, Vicki Hendricks, Minerva £6.99
Sherri Parlay turns her back on nightclub dancing and takes a job in a dry cleaner's where she immediately gets the hots for Payne, son of the shop's alcoholic owner Brenda. Mother's unhealthy interference in Payne's life goes far beyond making his packed lunches, and Sherri decides it wouldn't be a bad thing if her rival had an accident. Unambiguous lust is the sustaining force in Hendricks' sleazy white-trash thriller, a torrid and impressively nasty debut.
The Devil's Carousel, Jeff Torrington, Minerva £6.99
Comfortably occupying a niche between novel and short story collection is this hugely entertaining sequence of tales set around the Centaur car plant. Drawing on his own memories of Chrysler Talbot, Torrington paints a grimly humorous picture of a place where the assembly line is called "The Widow", since it drives so many workers to an early grave. The writing is sharp and energetic, totally convincing and frequently hilarious.
Children Of Darkness And Light, Nicholas Mosley, Minerva £6.99
A group of children in Cumbria have formed their own community after receiving visions of the Virgin Mary. Harry, a journalist who covered a similar incident in Bosnia, is sent to investigate. What unfolds is a bizarre mystery in which reality and fantasy become intertwined, the tone managing to be both light and unsettling, as religion, philosophy and science are whisked into a story which deftly touches on profound moral issues.
Leading The Blind, Alan Sillitoe, Papermac £9.00
Sillitoe gives a vivid and highly amusing impression of travel and tourism in the century between Waterloo and the Great War, taking as his sources the guidebooks of the time. Luggage should be light: a portable india-rubber bath is indispensable, as well as spectacles to protect the eyes from soot when travelling by third class rail. Servants should be left at home, and ladies dining in French inns should beware of commercial travellers.
Mrs. Keppel And Her Daughter, Diana Souhami, Flamingo £6.99
Alice Keppel was the long-term mistress of Edward VII, and he may have been the natural father of Violet, a sensitive and intelligent girl whose childhood infatuation with Vita Sackville-West developed into a passionate adult affair. The story is a remarkable one, highlighting the hypocrisy of a society which could tolerate royal adultery but not lesbian love, and given an added twist by the fact that Alice was the great-grandmother of Camilla Parker-Bowles.
Hanging Up, Delia Ephron, Fourth Estate £6.99
There are three sisters: a soap star, a snobbish magazine editor, and Eve who holds the family together, coping with the demands of a senile father who's always on the phone, and a teenage son who has adopted his girlfriend's new-age religion. Delia co-wrote Sleepless In Seattle with sister Nora, and her first novel is equally funny and heartwarming, a delightfully engrossing read which is acute in its observation of conflicting family pressures.
Rice, Su Tong, Touchstone £6.99
The setting is China in the twenties, where a young man named Five Dragons is forced by hunger to go to the city. He gets a job in a rice emporium and becomes involved with the proprietor's daughter, who is the discarded mistress of an opium dealer, and his grudging acceptance by the family leads Five Dragons to become boorish and sadistic. Tong portrays the harshness of his characters' lives in writing which is stark but gripping.
The Biography Of Thomas Lang, Jonathan Buckley, Fourth Estate, £9.99
Telling the story of an eccentric concert pianist who has apparently committed suicide, the novel consists of an exchange of letters between the pianist's brother Christopher and his biographer Michael Dessauer. There are anecdotes, concert reviews and squabbles, adding up to a picture of the artist, and attacking the romantic notion of genius. Reflections on music sustain the book, though it's the prickly temperaments of Thomas and his brother which dominate.
Conversations With God, Neale Donald Walsch, Hodder and Stoughton £7.99
While contemplating life's problems (such as: "Was the experience of adequate money going to elude me forever?"), American talk-show host Walsch wrote an angry letter to God, and this fatuous assemblage of mystical tosh is (we are assured) the Bearded One's reply. God comes across as a well-meaning but slightly incoherent soul, more fond of soothing obscurity than straight answers, and sounding pretty much like Neale Donald Walsch. Heaven help us.
On Kissing, Adrianne Blue, Indigo £6.99
It all starts with suckling apparently, and while chimpanzees are rather unimaginative smoochers, bonobos have been known to greet their keepers with a French kiss. Blue's enjoyable survey also looks at the kiss in art, literature and legend, from Judas to Dracula. The first screen kiss was in a film consisting of nothing else (it was thirty seconds long), while Rodin's disparaging assessment of his most famous sculpture was that it was "rather flabby".
Box 132, Alex Shearer, HarperCollins £5.99
After twenty years of happy but dull marriage Giles decides he needs a bit of variety, and puts a lonely hearts ad in the paper with appropriately farcical results. Very much a blokes' book, this amiable romp has the quaintly anachronistic charm of a Carry On film, and about as much sophistication, but the innocent warmth of its humour provides some truly funny moments, frequently involving toilets, alcohol or the allergic effects of condoms.
No Safe Place, Mary-Rose MacColl, Allen & Unwin £7.99
A student counsellor in a al Australian university is accused of sexual misconduct, and the case is investigated by registrar Adele Lanois. Her life beyond work is shown only superficially, and the two characters at the heart of the case remain similarly under-developed, the eventual plot-twists arriving too late. Instead the novel centres on the procedures of academic bureaucracy, leaving the big issues of sex and power implicit but largely unexamined.
A Stranger At My Table, ed Helen Braid, Women's Press £8.99
Women write about life with adolescent offspring, a theme which naturally has its comic side, with earnest but probably futile instructions given to one teenager on how to wash and dry his socks, but also extending to the stress of dealing with drugs and even bereavement. The stories, reminiscences and poems make for a mixed bag, but this anthology is bound to strike a chord with exasperated mothers everywhere.
The Edge Of Chaos, Bernice Cohen, Wiley £14.99
Oh good, I thought, a book that'll give me a quick rundown on chaos theory, then explain the latest research applied to financial markets. Er, no actually. Cohen, a "serious investor", gleaned the terminology from popular science books, and applies it with indiscriminate enthusiasm to an unquantified and needlessly long-winded catalogue of market crashes and financial bubbles. The historical details and economic folklore are fascinating, but the grand theorising is pure waffle.
Let It Bleed, Gary Indiana, Serpent's Tail £11.00
On the presidential campaign trail, adrift in the horror that is Euro Disney, and checking out the night life in Branson Missouri (where the Osmonds show includes second-generation Amy playing Mozart), Gary Indiana's intelligent collection of essays and reviews takes an incisive and witty look at American culture. Not one to take the moral high ground, he watches the making of a gay porn movie, and is disturbed by a tasteless bedspread.
The Gun Seller, Hugh Laurie, Mandarin £5.99
Anyone familiar with Laurie's comic persona (and there can't be many who aren't) will find it hard not to hear the same endearingly dotty voice in Thomas Lang, an ex-army type who gets mixed up in a spot of bother with arms dealers, international terrorists, and other downright rotters. Laurie's spoof thriller is an impressively accomplished debut, a finely judged and utterly hilarious blend of stiff upper lip and mangled collar bone.
My Ride With Gus, Charles Carillo, Sceptre £6.99
It's New Year's Eve in New York, where Jimmy has a row with his girlfriend, and finds himself not long afterwards with an unknown woman accidentally dead on his floor. He turns for help to brother Gus, a prominent Mafioso, and the two begin an all-night drive through Brooklyn to dispose of the body. Carillo's enjoyably pacey black comedy features psychopathic muggers, a highly dubious priest and an escaped leopard.
The Spears Of Twilight, Philippe Descola, Flamingo £8.99
Descola, an anthropologist who trained under Claude Levi-Strauss, spent three years living among the Achuar people of the Ecuadorian Amazon, and he describes their culture and lifestyle in fascinating detail. This is not a Utopian vision of primitive society (there are wife-beatings and vendettas), but rather a scholarly attempt to understand the "otherness" of a community whose attitudes and beliefs are in many respects wholly alien to our own.
The Artful Universe, John D. Barrow, Penguin £12.50
"The cosmic source of human creativity" is the inviting if slightly misleading subtitle for this scientific miscellany, an agreeable excursion through biology, physics and mathematics, showing how nature and evolution have shaped our perception of the world. Among the wonders revealed is the reason why there are seven days in the week (it's all to do with the planets), and why there are really only seventeen different kinds of wallpaper pattern.
The Decadent Gardener, Medlar Lucan and Durian Gray, Dedalus £8.99
Following their Decadent Cookbook, Lucan and Gray return with an equally entertaining account of their horticultural activities. Drawing on literary and historical inspiration such as Nero's ideas for cheap and practical illumination (human torches), they propose a range of fantastic gardens in which poisonous and narcotic plants, Priapic statuary, erotic landscaping and rude vegetables abound. And if you want to grow a nice pot of basil, a severed head comes in very handy.
Lying In Bed, J.D. Landis, Indigo £5.99
John's wife Clara goes out for the evening, leaving him to listen to music while thinking about Bach, Nietzsche and his own sexual history. The language is erudite and richly allusive, and the sheer oddness is highly compelling. Clara's diary forms the second half of the book, less rewarding stylistically, but offering another angle on the all-consuming passion of their relationship. Dryly humorous and powerfully erotic, this is a memorable and admirably ambitious first novel.
Dangerous Love, Ben Okri, Phoenix £6.99
The setting is Nigeria in the seventies; the doomed lovers are Omovo, an artist whose work is denounced as subversive, and Ifeyiwa, who longs to escape from her brutish husband. Okri opts for traditional novelistic conventions, presenting in a straightforward and accessible manner a story whose effect comes from the authentic feel of the dialogue, and from the vividness with which he evokes the detail and atmosphere of everyday Nigerian life.
The Prospect Before Her: A History Of Women In Western Europe, Olwen Hufton, Fontana £9.99
Covering the period 1500 to 1800, this magnificent work of historical scholarship presents a staggering wealth of information. Proceeding by topic (employment, motherhood etc.) rather than chronology, the lives of women at all social levels are illuminated with the help of contemporary documents. Concerned more with hard data than with ideological theorising, Hufton highlights the rich complexities of history in writing which is infused with warmth and humanity.
Entering The Circle, Olga Kharitidi, Thorsons £8.99
While working in a Siberian mental hospital, Kharitidi was told by one of her patients about the shamanistic beliefs still surviving among the people of the remote Altai mountains. She visited the area to see for herself, and experienced mystical visions which influenced her subsequent work. Sometimes rather hard to swallow (did she really encounter a physicist who uses mirrors to experiment with "reality"?), it's an intriguing tale nevertheless.
Grooming, Gossip And The Evolution Of Language, Robin Dunbar, Faber And Faber £7.99
Dunbar's theory is that the communities of our prehistoric ancestors grew too large for chimp-like grooming to work as a social bond, and language evolved to replace it. Fascinating and clearly written, his persuasive chain of reasoning sheds light on primate intelligence and the ancient origins of the world's six thousand languages. There are surprising findings about the way modern humans converse, based on extensive eavesdropping.
Love, Again. Doris Lessing, Flamingo £6.99
Sarah Durham is a sixty-something theatre producer whose latest project is based on the story of nineteenth century composer Julie Vairon. Sarah finds herself falling first for the young and beautiful leading man, then later for the more mature director, and her conflicting emotions contrast with those of the passionate and ill-fated Julie. The pace is leisurely, but there is still much to savour in Lessing's observations on love and growing old.
Look What They've Done To The Blues. Mark Blackaby, Gollancz £9.99
Gideon Lucas (Charlie to his friends) is an odd mix. University drop-out, ex-con and sometime model, he does a bit of sculpture in his spare time and seriously damages people he doesn't like with car keys and chisels. Improbable, yet somehow it all works, and Blackaby brings a witty and ironic tone to the story, which tells how Lucas tracks down his share of the proceeds from a robbery.
The Disobedient Servant. Tom Ackland, Indigo £5.99
This is billed as a "comic thriller", though the only joke is the monograph on pheasant psychology which hapless civil servant Guy Colchester plans to write. There's a great deal of talk between grey functionaries in a time-warped Whitehall (authentically so, no doubt, since Ackland used to work there), from which a densely plotted adventure story emerges involving Middle Eastern weapon-making. It's competently put together, but I'd have preferred the pheasants.
Flight Of The Kingfisher. Monica Furlong, Flamingo £6.99
Armed with "books, files and laptop", Furlong set off in search of Aboriginal society unspoiled by Western contamination, and found accommodation at a Catholic mission in the outback. Furlong is an unashamed romantic, rather simplistic in her fond vision of an "Eden" predating European colonisation, but her descriptions of Aborigine customs and beliefs will be of interest to anyone seeking an Australian culture far removed from the mythologies of Ramsey Street.
Climbing Mount Improbable. Richard Dawkins, Penguin £7.99
Darwinian evolution is the familiar theme to which Dawkins returns in his characteristically accessible manner. The "improbable mountain" is the apparently designed perfection of structures such as the eye or wing, where half solutions aren't good enough. Dawkins shows how Darwin's theory still applies, and provides a wealth of fascinating examples both from the natural world and from his own computer simulations of evolution. An elegant example of popular science writing at its best.
The Book Of Lies, Agota Kristof, Minerva £8.99
In wartime Eastern Europe, twins Claus and Lucas are sent to live with their witch-like grandmother, the numbing brutality of their existence being expressed in sparse, dislocated writing. War ends and Claus escapes across the border, leaving Lucas to cope with life under communism, until the brothers are reunited (perhaps) in the mysterious final part of this haunting trilogy, which powerfully evokes the alienating effects of war and its aftermath.
Last Orders, Graham Swift, Picador £5.99
The ashes of Jack Dodds are taken to be scattered from Margate Pier by four men who were close to him. Told in short chapters from the alternating viewpoints of the various characters, the interlocking personal histories which emerge stretch back more than fifty years, and reveal unresolved tensions. The similarity of the voices gives the novel a uniformity which can feel over-extended, but the sheer humanity of Swift's writing makes his book a gentle triumph.
The Experience Of The Night, Marcel Bealu, Dedalus £8.99
Written in 1945, this Kafkaesque fantasy concerns a man who goes for an eye test and is presented with a box of black pills which he must take after "twelve hours of work". He therefore finds a job in a spooky factory, and things get progressively more weird. Episodic and irrational, the ideas are often better than Bealu's over-ripe prose, but no surrealist will want to be without this cult curiosity.
Ask Dr. Mueller, Cookie Mueller, Serpent's Tail £9.99
Mother, outlaw and accomplished go-go dancer, Cookie had a part in Pink Flamingos, whose most notorious scene (involving Divine and a dog turd) is cheerfully recounted in this wide-ranging anthology. There are also stories ("novels for people with short attention spans"), reminiscences, art reviews and extracts from her health column, for which she wrote the (often bizarre) questions as well as the answers. A lively memorial to a short and hectic life.
Mama's Girl, Veronica Chambers, Women's Press £7.99
Veronica's father was a ventriloquist and Black Power activist (her brother was christened Malcolm X), who walked out when she was ten. Life with her less than wholly supportive mother forms the main focus of this touching memoir, which tells how Chambers' ambition and determination enabled her to become one of only two black editors at the New York Times. It's recent history, since she's still only twenty six.
Rat Bohemia, Sarah Schulman, Plume/Penguin £7.99
Schulman addresses gay issues in a way that's universally relevant, and her hugely readable novel roller-coasters between off-beat humour and savage indignation. It tells the stories of Rita, a New York rat exterminator; her best friend Killer who is hopelessly in love; and David, a writer who is HIV positive. The book's central theme is the abandonment of gay children by their parents, and Schulman's flashes of wit make the hard message all the more convincing.
If He Lived, Jon Stephen Fink, Jonathan Cape £9.99
Freddy and Lillian live in an old house in New England, their marriage quietly fossilising since the loss of their runaway teenage daughter. Lillian starts seeing the ghost of a young boy, and her husband's initial skepticism only adds to the pressure on their relationship. The arrival of a paranormal investigator nudges the plot towards the conventional, but doesn't spoil a beautifully told and truly haunting story.
A February Cuckoo, Elisabeth Brooke, The Women's Press £6.99
Candida reads tarot cards, takes her pet panther for walks round London, and meets a man called Uther Pendragon who drives a bus. There's also an ex-dancer with lots of cats, and a retired magician sleeping rough. This intriguing bunch comes together following the discovery of a boy who has been gang raped, but the earnestly self-conscious prose style takes much of the bite out of a promising scenario.
Darnley, Caroline Bingham, Phoenix Giant £9.99
Was Mary Queen of Scots' second husband really the murderous villain we learned about at school? Well yes, he was a complete bastard actually, probably insisting that David Rizzio be killed in Mary's presence so she would suffer a miscarriage. Bingham's scholarly biography depicts Darnley as a promising young man destroyed by ambition and vanity, though the question of Mary's involvement in his own spectacular murder remains an unsolved mystery.
Love's Work, Gillian Rose, Vintage £5.99
A professor of philosophy at Warwick University, Rose was diagnosed with terminal cancer in her early forties, and she wrote this brief, erudite and profound book during her final months. Reflecting on her own life, the inspiration of friends (including a woman who lived with cancer for eighty years), and the experience of fellow Jews, her book brings in a rich wealth of ideas about the body, about spirituality, and about love.
In A Father's Place, Christopher Tilghman, Vintage £5.99
Too many short story writers seem to think it's enough just to take a random slice out of everyday life, but not Tilghman. His stories of rural and small-town America almost amount to miniature novels, drawing the reader into compact dramas in which family loyalties are usually the presiding force. The strong sense of narrative harks back to the masters of the genre; Tilghman's lyrical and evocative writing revitalises the tradition.
Dance Real Slow, Michael Grant Jaffe, Bloomsbury £6.99
A lawyer's wife has walked out, leaving him to raise their child alone. Kramer vs Kramer for the nineties is the obvious description, though Jaffe is clearly aiming at something loftier. For all the stylistic finesse, though, this is thoroughly conventional stuff, with the coping, sensitive father meeting his new love when she drops her groceries at the supermarket, and the lost wife returning to mess things up.
Junglee Girl, Ginu Kamani, Phoenix £5.99
Kamani was born in Bombay, and her stories about women in India are laced with a subversive element of fantasy. A young girl's unusual height is equated with excessive sexual urges and treated in a highly unorthodox way, while in another story a woman's tears measure out the barriers of oppression she encounters each day. Kamani, now living in the United States, brings an outsider's eye to her own community in this exuberant collection.
The Murder Of Rasputin, Greg King, Arrow £6.99
The main player is Felix Youssoupov, the pampered and idle aristocrat who pulled the trigger on the Mad Monk in 1916, then dined out on the deed for the rest of his days in exile and successfully took MGM to court over its film version of events. King accepts Rasputin's "powers" as fact, and novelistic scene-setting betrays the book's leanings towards lurid sensationalism, but it's a well researched retelling of the story.
Dark Ruby, Zoe Schramm-Evans, Pandora £8.99
In her journey across Burma, Zoe Schramm-Evans avoids the carefully packaged tourist sites which feed foreign cash to the military regime. Braving infinite hassle and hotels where rats eat her soap, she finds that modern Mandalay is no place for flying fishes, and in Rangoon she joins the crowd who gather to hear opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speak from her garden. It's an entertaining and enlightening tour through a troubled country.
Barrel Fever, David Sedaris, Indigo £6.99
Not sure what Mike Tyson would think about a short story in which he and his gay lover quarrel over how to name their pet kitten. "Pitty Ting" is Mikey's suggestion. In another story, a woman types a gushing Christmas letter to her friends, cheerfully announcing that the latest arrival to the family is her husband's twenty two year old Vietnamese love-child. Sedaris's surreal lampooning of American culture is sharp, sophisticated and desperately funny.
The Testimony Of Taliesin Jones, Rhidian Brook, Flamingo £5.99
Pronounced Taly-essin, I was glad to be told, the hero of Brook's first novel is a bright and bookish lad in Wales who wrestles with doubts about God and finds solace in his friendship with an elderly man. At its best when not striving for lyrical effect, there's a good deal of warmth in this tale of a kid who mostly wants to know how to get rid of his warts.
The Point, Charles D'Ambrosio, Flamingo £5.99
D'Ambrosio is clearly a gifted writer, but in this collection I get the feeling he isn't yet running at full throttle. Restrained and apt to let his stories veer off course, he diminishes the effect of the highly promising situations he sets up, as in the title story where a teenager's erotically charged encounter with a drunk woman gives way to a letter from his dead father. Cool, calculated and efficient.
Terrors And Experts, Adam Phillips, Faber And Faber £6.99
Phillips, a child psychologist, proposes to explore the authority vested in psychiatrists by their patients. He doesn't quite deliver, but his book is an intriguing mix of psycho-analytic history, case study and rumination, which is enlightening and frustrating by turns. Phillips' debt to Freud and Lacan is evident, and his aspirations are similar. A boy's eczema becomes a linguistic puzzle, beautifully solved, but with an insight more literary than scientific.
Mukiwa: A White Boy In Africa, Peter Godwin, Picador £7.99
The first half of Godwin's memoir vividly recaptures a childhood spent in close contact with nature and traditional culture in 60's Rhodesia. As a teenage conscript, Godwin is confronted with the ugliness and tragedy of the escalating civil war, and after studying in England he returns to watch the emergence of the new Zimbabwe. His book is a moving evocation of the moral dilemma faced by the white community in Africa.
The Knot, Eva Figes, Minerva £6.99
This is a book about language, telling the story of Anna from birth to maturity in her own emerging voice. In the early childhood years, Figes opts for fragmentary lyricism of a kind found in creative writing classes everywhere, and by her teens I was wishing the girl would just lighten up a little. But things get better, and in her journey to motherhood she gradually learns to be a bit less painfully self-absorbed.
Sandpiper, Ahdaf Soueif, Bloomsbury £5.99
Soueif is an Egyptian now living in Britain, and her depiction of Egyptian women in her previous novels caused controversy among traditionalists there. Her stories have a cosmopolitan feel, featuring people who are uprooted or dispossessed - a British woman brought to Alexandria by marriage, or the French-Greek proprietor of a restaurant in Cairo looking back wistfully on her life - and it's through such dislocations that Soueif's characters come to question their own identities.
A Struggle For Power, Theodore Draper, Abacus £9.99
The Americans call it their Revolution, for the Brits it was a War of Independence, and Draper's careful analysis shows that 1776-and-all-that was about far more than the schoolbook slogan of "taxation without representation". Drawing on a wealth of contemporary sources, Draper examines the build-up to the conflict over two decades, arguing that the Revolution was the inevitable result of America's growing population and wealth, the "first world war in modern times".
The War After, Anne Karpf, Minerva £6.99
Karpf is a daughter of Holocaust survivors; her father was deported to a Soviet labour camp, while her concert-pianist mother escaped death in Plaszow thanks to her performance for the camp commandant, the infamous Amon Goeth portrayed in Schindler's List. Their stories, told in interviews, are combined with Karpf's own to create a moving memoir explaining what it was like to grow up in Britain beneath the terrible shadow of the Holocaust.
Last Night's Fun, Ciaran Carson, Pimlico £10
Written by a Belfast poet and musician, this is a magical evocation of "the crack", exploring the language and culture of Irish traditional music in short, dazzlingly improvisatory chapters. Memories of well-loved musicians, the traditional way of pouring of Guinness, and the ingredients of next morning's fry are all part of the brew. A poetic book in the very best sense of the word, its intricate melodies whirl in the mind long afterwards.
The First Mrs Wordsworth, Michael Baldwin, Abacus £6.99
Wordsworth's sojourn in revolutionary France had lasting results in the Prelude ("Bliss it was in that Dawn to be alive"), and in his illegitimate daughter by Annette Vallon, a woman who subsequently referred to him as "husband" in her letters. Baldwin's novel fills in the historical gaps by supposing that William and Annette really did marry secretly, and his portrayal of the couple's doomed relationship is well stocked with convincing period detail.
Last Lesson Of The Afternoon, Christopher Rush, Canongate £6.99
Written in the form of an English teacher's reminiscence to his class, Rush's semi-autobiographical novel is a savage satire on the educational system. Rich in literary allusion and dripping with bile, the narrator's Rabelasian rant hauls us through his Fife childhood, student days at Aberdeen, and a teaching apprenticeship during which an older colleague comes to lessons in military uniform, armed with a javelin, and tells the kids to "Parse or die!"
Anita and Me, Meera Syal, Flamingo £5.99
Well known for her film Bhaji On The Beach, Syal brings a similar warm humour to her first novel, the story of nine year old Meena growing up in a Midlands mining town in the sixties, and her love-hate friendship with bad-girl Anita. Meena is caught between the two cultures of Punjabi family and English working-class community, and Syal portrays her young heroine's delicate balancing act with great fondness.
The Trail Of Lot 163, Philip Mould, Fourth Estate £8.99
Bought for £180, a grimy old portrait painted on a piece of slate turned out to be a Renaissance masterpiece by Sebastiano del Piombo, and was snapped up by the Getty Museum for six and a half million. Mould's entertaining book is all about "sleepers" such as these, and the ever-hopeful art dealers who hunt for them. Tricks of the trade range from X-ray photography down to surreptitiously rubbing spit on an interesting canvas.
Irish Voices: Irish Lives, Ben Lander, Brandon £6.99
Swedish-born Lander decided to get an insight into his adopted Ireland by interviewing a selection of people from both sides of the border, and he has come up with a fascinating bunch. Unionists and republicans both have their say, and among other contributors there's a poet who breeds pigs, an expert on Celtic mythology, and a truly inspiring widow who hasn't let blindness interfere too much with her baking.
The Cat, Pat Gray, Dedalus £6.99
Gray's reworking of the "Animal Farm" concept brings in a post-Thatcherite twist. Having peacefully co-existed with his friends Mouse and Rat (the latter carries a briefcase and wears Italian suits), the Cat's owners suddenly leave him to fend for himself. He then has to fall back on feline instincts, placating the furry packed lunches which surround him with promises of consumer goods and burrow ownership. A stylish and witty parable for the nineties.
Common Ground, Andrew Cowan, Penguin £6.99
The follow-up to Cowan's highly acclaimed "Pig" is a gently comic tale of first-time parenthood, set against a backdrop of urban blight. Mum-to-be Jay is a community artist, her partner Ashley is a cheesed-off teacher whose letters to his globe-trotting brother provide a blow by blow account of the pregnancy and his new daughter's first months. Fellow parents will sympathise with Ashley's baby-bore syndrome, while others might find it just a little wearying.
The Bible, ed R. Carroll and S. Prickett, Oxford University Press, £9.99
Alright, I didn't quite get through the whole King James (plus Apocrypha) this week, but this admirable new repackaging in the "World's Classics" series comes complete with an introduction setting the Good Book in its historical and cultural context, as well as maps, explanations, and commentaries which are helpful and fascinating. Up to you whether you prefer to shelve it among your non-, but this is an edition which every booklover deserves to have.
Life On The Screen: Identity In The Age Of The Internet, Sherry Turkle, £7.99
Virtual reality, computer simulation and the joys of Multiple User Domains are the theme, with a few philosophical bells and whistles thrown in courtesy of Derrida et al. Nearly three hundred pages is a little over-generous, but dedicated tech-heads will enjoy the company of Turkle's interviewees, who find web robots and object-oriented programming infinitely more interesting than RL (that's "real life" to you and me).
Feet Of Clay: A Study Of Gurus, Anthony Storr, HarperCollins £6.99
The spiritual leaders in this highly absorbing study range from the catastrophically barmy (Koresh and co.) to the unquestionably saintly (Ignatius Loyola and Christ), with Freud and Jung somewhere in the middle. Since the author is himself a distinguished psychiatrist the emphasis is on finding common personality traits, which leads to some very illuminating observations on the psychology of artistic creativity, scientific discovery, and religious conversion.
Sarajevo Marlboro, Miljenko Jergovic, Penguin £6.99
Jergovic is a Sarajevan poet and journalist who remained in the city throughout the civil war, enduring fear and hardship. His stories of daily life - fleeting glimpses of families, lovers, victims - are laced with a sense of detached irony, which might be a defence against the horror, or perhaps a result of its cauterising effect. The brevity and fragmentation can be exasperating, but Jergovic's writing derives great power from what is left unsaid.
Vertigo, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, Bloomsbury £5.99
The novel on which the recently re-released movie is based gets a new lease of life in an interesting "Film Classics" list which also promises "Psycho" and "Diva" among other titles. Forget James Stewart and Kim Novak (if you can); now we're in wartime Paris, where Flavieres is the ex-policeman with a poor head for heights who's on the trail of the accident-prone Madeleine Gevigne. For Hitchcock buffs and lovers of old-fashioned mystery it's a treat.
Why Things Bite Back, Edward Tenner, Fourth Estate £7.99
When Tenner first started working in a "paperless office" he noticed that computer technology had actually led to an increase in paper consumption. Such "revenge effects" are the subject of his endlessly fascinating book, which isn't a technophobe's manifesto, but rather a deeply researched analysis of the complexities of technological culture, showing how pest control can sometimes lead to more pests, while clean homes can breed disease.
Domestic Violence For Beginners, Writers And Readers £6.99
Not the most felicitous of titles perhaps, but this is part of the "Beginners" series which uses a comic-book format to bring big political and philosophical issues onto a reader-friendly level. There's a rundown on the various psychological theories (or excuses) for domestic violence, and on the varying ways in which the problem has been treated, or more often ignored. Most importantly, there's a check-list of warning signs for women, with advice on where to get help.
Big Hair, Grant McCracken, Indigo £7.99
Written by a PhD anthropologist (naturally) in the hypnotically banal style of your average Cosmo mini-feature (there goes my commission), this is a book all about hair. And I really mean all ( "Chapter Four: Vidal Sassoon And The Great Leap Forward"). The text is shopping mall sociology, the layout pure kitsch, and if the blond-versus-redhead debate or the politics of the permanent wave gets you excited then put down your hairdrier and go for it.
The Kiln, William McIlvanney, Sceptre £6.99
Alone in an Edinburgh flat, writer Tom Docherty looks back over the years. Episodes from the past rise up and vanish in a jumbled kaleidoscope of memories which gradually assemble a picture of his life, and the crucial "summer of the kiln" when he was seventeen. Introspective reflection which is almost Proustian in richness is combined with warmly comic writing of a very Scottish kind, to create a touching, funny and beautiful portrait.
The Love Song Of J. Edgar Hoover, Kinky Friedman, Faber and Faber £8.99
The Kinkster, as he's known to his many fans (Bill Clinton is one, apparently) returns with another detective adventure featuring the usual mix of country music, cats and throwaway one-liners. Hired by a "leggy blonde" to find her missing husband, Kinky soon finds himself at the wrong end of a gun, but doesn't let fear of death interfere with the gags. Bill won't be disappointed.
Espionage: The Greatest Spy Operations of the 20th Century, Ernest Volkman, Wiley £13.99
Tales of double crossing and grand deception here, such as the Soviets' brilliant and effective plan to wipe out Czarist loyalists in the twenties by enlisting them into an underground network which was really run by CHEKA agents. The book is laced with espionage terminology (spies are always "assets") and padded out with mini biographies and scene-setting details which compensate for the occasional creakiness of the prose.
Not Yet Home: A South African Journey, Justin Cartwright, Fourth Estate £6.99
Cartwright is known for novels such as "Masai Dreaming" and "In Every Face I Meet", and he turns here to memoir and reportage as he describes his travels in the country of his birth. The Truth Commission and an interview with Desmond Tutu are described alongside encounters with traditional craftsmen, gangsters, artists and eccentrics. Often highly amusing, it's an enlightening tour through the new South Africa.
Mother Courage, C. Gowdridge, A.S. Williams, M. Wynn (eds), Penguin £8.99
In 1915 the Women's Co-operative Guild published a landmark collection of letters by mothers describing how they coped with hardship. The idea is revived in this anthology of contemporary first-person accounts, painting a picture of the poverty which affects a quarter of Britain's children today. The mothers' comments are graphic, shocking, often deeply moving, and are essential reading for anyone who ever thought there was such a thing as "the nanny state".
The Hundred Brothers, Donald Antrim, Secker and Warburg £9.99
The brothers are named, all hundred of them, in the first few pages as they gather for a meal in the library of their decaying family mansion, where they consider the search for the lost urn which contains their father's ashes. The night's events are the subject of this mad wrestling match of a book, whose spirit and density places Antrim in the tradition of comic fabulists from Rabelais to Pynchon.
London Blues, Anthony Frewin, No Exit Press £6.99
Frewin's work in the film industry brought him into contact with the sort of cheap porn flicks which get catalogued, apparently, in respectably obscure cine archives. His thriller is set in the demi-monde of sixties Soho, where the taint of conspiracy enshrouds the career and possible death of blue movie director Tim Purdom. Nostalgia rather than sleaze is the prevailing force, with the pre-swinging London of Profumo and espresso bars lovingly evoked.
The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, Roddy Doyle, Minerva £6.99
Doyle's cinematic prose remains as effortlessly digestible as ever, in this story of a woman whose abusive husband dies violently in an attempted robbery. The tale is told in swiftly moving scenes, laced with humour and pathos, and enriched with faultlessly brilliant dialogue. Why then did such a compulsively readable book leave me feeling peckish half an hour later for something a little less predictable?
A Short History of the Shadow, Victor I. Stoichita, Reaktion Books £14.95
Beginning with Pliny's account of the origins of painting in shadow-tracing, this is the story of light and shade in art. There's plenty of heavy theorising, with numerous examples provided by artists ranging from Giotto to Beuys, but the best bit for me was the fascinating practical advice offered by Leonardo, Vasari and Cennini, who helpfully explain why shadows in paintings usually point towards the right.
The Office Jungle, Judi James, HarperCollins £5.99
Office politics getting you down? Then curl up in bed and find out "how to lie effectively", or learn the correct etiquette when meeting your boss in the loo. Based on "highly successful seminars", this is ideal for anyone who needs earnest instruction on preparation for work ("lay out your underwear..."), wants to be a "corporate eccentric" (bow tie and waistcoat), or is unaware of the career disadvantage which can result from making "anti-social noises"...
The Sunken Road, Garry Disher, Fourth Estate £6.99
We quickly learn the facts of Anna Tolley's biography; the lover she loses in Vietnam, the son who also dies, and the daughter whose lesbianism she struggles to accept. Unfolding these facts from varying perspectives, the book conjures up a woman's voice which is exuberant, lyrical, and totally believable, and creates an engrossing picture of a South Australian town. It's an impressive achievement, and a rewarding read.
Another Time, Another Place, Jessie Kesson, B&W Publishing £5.99
Kesson was born in Inverness in 1916, and died three years ago. Her writing looks back to the rural traditions of earlier times, and in this novel, set during the Second World War, she describes the effect which three newly arrived Italian prisoners have on a small crofting community. There's inevitable suspicion and cross-cultural misunderstanding, but Kesson highlights the thwarted romantic aspirations of the farm-worker's wife who befriends them.
The Wisdom of the Bones, Alan Walker and Pat Shipman, Phoenix £7.99
In 1984, Walker and Shipman discovered fossilised bones in Kenya which proved to be the most complete specimen yet known of our ancestor Homo erectus. They describe the years of scientific detective work which have enabled them to produce a detailed picture of the lifestyle and possible intelligence of this twelve year old boy, concluding that his race were physically much like modern humans, but were unable to speak.
Dancing On The Grave: Encounters With Death, Nigel Barley, Abacus £8.99
No Torajan home is complete without a grandmother, even if she happens not to be alive (in which case she may be used as a shelf), while Thonga widows can end their mourning only by seducing a stranger. Far from being morbid, Barley's fascinating and engagingly written book shows how funerary ritual fits into broader beliefs, revealing the ways in which different cultures understand life as well as its inevitable end.
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Greil Marcus, Picador £16.99
Forget powered flight or Hiroshima, the really big events of the century have been Dada and the Sex Pistols, according to this bizarre, infuriating, but strangely browsable excursion of rock journalism into grand cultural theory. A hefty tome which will bring a groan to the coffee table of any ageing punk, its cut-and-paste logic throws up a few facts of anecdotal interest, among a barrowload of specious waffle.
Zaire, Harry Smart, Dedalus £8.99
A perfectly timed publication in view of recent events, this political thriller is set during the Mobutu regime, with security agent Philippe being sent to London to eliminate a relative of Patrice Lumumba, the first leader of the independent Congo, whom Mobutu overthrew in 1961. Philippe seeks political asylum instead and finds himself pursued by his former friends, his attempts to rescue his family being intercut with flashbacks which recount Lumumba's tragic fate.
The Casanova Papers, Carl MacDougall, Minerva £6.99
A Glasgow journalist still mourning the recent death of his wife is sent to Paris on an assignment. There he encounters the oddly named AnnA, and comes across a collection of papers relating to Giacomo Casanova, who was a writer and spy in addition to his more famous activities. The story unfolds through a mixture of personal recollection and literary pastiche, rich in cultural pointers, but lacking in direction.
Plagues, Christopher Wills, Flamingo £8.99
An occasionally gruesome but highly readable mix of history and science describing plagues down the ages, not only the bubonic variety witnessed by Boccaccio and Pepys, but also cholera, syphilis, HIV and more. DNA sequencing reveals the mechanisms and tangled ancestries of these opportunistic nasties, shedding light on the process of evolution itself, and Wills draws on first hand experience when he describes conditions in Third World countries where the terrible impact of disease still prevails.
The Ballad and the Folk, David Buchan, Tuckwell Press £9.99
First published twenty five years ago but only now reissued, Buchan's pioneering study of the ballads of North East Scotland is an acknowledged classic in its field, one of the first serious academic attempts in Britain to set folk song in the context of its culture and performance. Buchan is equally preoccupied with the intricate formal structures of the ballads, which he depicts in elaborate diagrams of almost mystical complexity.
Fire In The Mind, George Johnson, £9.99
This is one of those crossover books which link science and religion in an attempt to produce startling insight, big sales figures, or both. Johnson's book is an honourable addition to the genre, though, being content to take the fascinating traditions of New Mexico's native inhabitants as a launch pad into the equally fascinating discoveries in physics and biology being made on the other side of the fence by scientists at Los Alamos.
Zeitgeist, Todd Wiggins, Indigo £5.99
Venus Wicked, failed novelist turned prostitute turned journalist, tells the story of four unlikely outlaws: a black cyber-terrorist, a schizophrenic priest, a lesbian karate expert and (this is the really weird bit) an internationally famous Welsh philosopher. It's 1999 and one of them is about to become the first executed prisoner of the new millennium. The "spirit of the age" is grasped only superficially amidst the literary glitter, but for sheer inventiveness this is an impressive debut.
Accordion Crimes, E. Annie Proulx, Fourth Estate £6.99
Eight stories of immigrant Americans are linked by the accordion which passes through their hands down the years. The racially-motivated killing of its Sicilian maker sets the pattern for the book, in which death and misfortune predominate, often with an edge of farce. As always with Proulx, it's the awesome virtuosity of the prose which fascinates, though her parade of ill-fated characters leave a strange coldness in their wake.
The Bend For Home, Dermot Healy, Harvill £6.99
Healy's beautifully written memoir of childhood and adolescence in small-town Ireland begins with the family legend of his own birth, quickly revealed to be a mistaken recollection. The boundary between memory and fiction is the guiding path in his poetic evocation of a lost world of whist drives and sweetly scented bakeries, when you could go to bed not knowing who you might wake up to find sleeping beside you.
The Enlightenment For Beginners, Lloyd Spencer and Andrzej Krauze, Icon £8.99
The essential bluffers' guide for anyone who wants to talk knowledgeably about Voltaire and Rousseau, enlightened despots and the rights of man, without having to read too much beforehand. It's an agreeable tour, amiably illustrated in the usual style of the "Beginners" series, and Scotland's significant role in eighteenth century thought is given due credit, with a billiard-playing David Hume appropriately placed among the greatest thinkers of the age.
Contemporary Botanical Artists, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £20
Botanical artists work at the point where art and science meet: their job is to illustrate plant anatomy in a way which no photograph can match, and the results can often be visually stunning. The pictures in this large format book come from the Shirley Sherwood collection, and show the range of botanical illustration today, from the neoclassical to the luxuriantly stylish. Art lovers and gardeners alike will find much to enjoy here.
Tales of Love and Loss, Knut Hamsun, Souvenir Press £8.99
Norwegian-born Hamsun, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920, is remembered nowadays for novels such as "Hunger" and, less fortunately, for his support of the Nazis in old age. The twenty stories brought together here in new translations by Robert Ferguson date from the turn of the century. Sometimes bizarre, often highly amusing, they show to good effect Hamsun's stylistic boldness and ironic sense of humour.
The Dancer Upstairs, Nicholas Shakespeare, Picador £6.99
The capture of Abimael Guzman, leader of Peru's Shining Path, provides the inspiration for this tale of a notorious guerrilla leader, the police Colonel charged with hunting him down, and the English journalist who is trying to scoop the story. Shakespeare leads the reader into a thoughtful political thriller as tangled and deceptive as a tropical rainforest, the strongly evoked South American atmosphere providing a path through the book's dense undergrowth.
On The Crofters' Trail, David Craig, Pimlico £12
Craig travelled throughout Scotland and Canada in search of the descendants of Highlanders caught up in the Clearances. His journey and their testimony form the basis of this very personal, reflective and moving account of the brutal intimidation and forced evictions which continued until surprisingly recent times. Past and present come together in the recollections of men and women for whom history is still very much alive.
The Drinkers' Guide to the Middle East, Will Lawson, Rebel inc. £5.99
A slightly deceptive title, but one which should ensure the right readership for this off-beat guidebook to the region, "drinkers" referring to an attitude as much as an activity. Reading like the kind of advice you'd hear over several beers from a hardened traveller, it's witty and surprisingly informative, with lots of practical info and a rundown on politics, culture, terrorism, swearing, beards and, of course, alcohol.
Discovering Scottish Writers, ed Alan Reid and Brian D. Osborne, Scottish Cultural Press £7.95
What a handy wee book this is. Eighty writers, listed alphabetically, are given a one or two page biography, the whole adding up to a potted history of Scottish literature. Being dead for several years would appear to be a minimum condition of inclusion, otherwise it's hard to explain certain absences from recent times, but as a guide to literary figures of earlier generations this is an indispensable companion.
Lives Of The Monster Dogs, Kirsten Bakis, Sceptre £10
Talking animals remain as popular as ever in the armoury of novelistic formulas. Bakis' enjoyable debut has bipedal dogs arriving by helicopter in New York in the not-too-distant future, where they start buying up real estate to build a castle. It works thanks to Bakis' cool, almost classical touch, which reinforces the oddness and makes her narrator's relationship with a well-dressed German Shepherd called Ludwig all the more believable.
Traplines, Eden Robinson, Abacus £9.99
Robinson is a young Canadian writer, and in the four stories gathered here she clearly marks out her territory, the word "dysfunctional" often coming to mind in connection with the families she depicts. One kid has a mom who's a serial killer, another is torn between a sympathetic schoolteacher and the taunts of nasty peers, while the inevitable dead-end recreations beckon. Robinson brings an objective eye and a delicately honed style to these bleak lives.
Dead Glamorous, Carole Morin, Indigo £6.99
A Glasgow childhood among grotesquely amusing relatives, grief over the loss of a suicidal brother, and an obsession with film are the key ingredients in Morin's enthralling and disturbing memoir. The writing is brittle and neurotic, the kind which keeps you on the edge of your seat, and her machine-gun observations take in Tarantino, Princess Diana, and lots and lots of movies, while grasping towards a sense of lasting significance beneath the sparkling surface.
High Tide In Tucson, Barbara Kingsolver, Faber and Faber £6.99
Life as a writer and working mother are among the subjects in this wide-ranging collection of essays, whose bright and chatty style indicates their origin as magazine articles. The natural world figures largely (the author was a biologist before she found fame as a novelist), and often serves as a basis for reflections on human society, but Kingsolver always treats her fellow species with the respect of an expert.
Lesbianism Made Easy, Helen Eisenbach, Virago £9.99
I can safely assert that you don't have to be a lesbian to enjoy this witty guide, whose chapters include such crucial issues as "How to choose a pet" (more essential than having sex, it would seem, and you might want to call it Alice B. Toklas), and includes some interesting suggestions for roleplay scenarios (e.g. Amish housewife/Riot grrl). And yes, if you're interested, there's also advice on "How to have sex".
A Heart So White, Javier Marias, Panther £6.99
This complex and deceptive novel by one of Spain's most renowned writers has been a huge best-seller there. An interpreter honeymooning in Havana overhears an adulterous couple apparently plotting murder, and this has subtle connections with a mysterious suicide and a woman who exchanges pornographic lonely-hearts videos. Not by any means your average page turner, it's a ruminative and slowly unfolding story, which holds rich rewards for the patient reader.
The Karnau Tapes, Marcel Beyer, Secker and Warburg £9.99
Karnau is a sound engineer in Nazi Germany who secretly collects recordings of every form of human utterance. He briefly finds himself looking after the children of an unnamed Goebbels-like figure, and the novel is told through the alternating voices of eldest child Helga, and Karnau himself, the two finally being reunited in the Führer's bunker. Beyer's meticulous prose lends a particularly chilling resonance to his account of the Reich's collapse.
Your Mother's Tongue: A Book of European Invective, Stephen Burgen, Indigo £6.99
Anyone with an interest in language, and bad language in particular, will find this a fascinating read. It's not so much a lager lout's phrasebook as an exploration of cultural differences, with the European north-south divide being characterised, among other features, by sensitivity as to your mother's honour. The Finns are inventively foul-mouthed, the Dutch somewhat scatological, but for sexual slang it's the French who win hands down.
Congo Journey, Redmond O'Hanlon, Penguin £6.99
O'Hanlon and an amusingly pessimistic fellow naturalist named Lary set off to explore the "lost world" around Lake Tele, where a Nessie-like creature known as Mokele-Mbembe is reputed to roam. There are encounters with corrupt officials and hospitable Pygmies, and every passing bird or trail of ants is the cue for a quick natural history lecture, which enables O'Hanlon's leisurely epic to be astonishingly informative as well as enormously entertaining.
Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity, John Kao, HarperCollins £8.99
The key to business success is keeping up with the latest jargon, and "jamming" in this instance is not the WI fundraising kind, but a form of corporate grooming with vocabulary borrowed from jazz. After a "creative audit", execs are encouraged to bounce riffs off each other to "activate the imagination", though the book doesn't suggest what to do when the boss starts a twenty minute drum solo.
The Flanders Panel, Arturo Perez-Reverte, Panther £6.99
A fifteenth century painting showing a game of chess is about to be auctioned in Madrid when a bit of pre-sale cleaning reveals the Latin riddle "who killed the knight?", apparently referring to the result of the game, and to the murder of one of the players. Mediaeval history, auction house politics and chess theory (complete with diagrams) are the ingredients of this thoroughly brainy whodunit, which devotees of the Nimzo-Indian defence will appreciate.
The Feminists Go Swimming, Michael Collins, Phoenix £5.99
The title story in this enjoyable collection concerns a protest during the nineteen seventies at that bastion of male exclusivity, the Forty Foot bathing cove near Dublin. Church, pub and betting shop also feature among the Irish institutions which Collins subtly explores, often with a blackly humorous edge, and in the best story, "The End Of The World" a Catholic childhood is evoked in a way which is both surreal and touching.
The Covenant Of The Wild, Stephen Budiansky, Phoenix £6.99
If you've ever thrown a mouse out of your house rather than kill it, think again. It'll freeze or starve, since its "natural" habitat, thanks to centuries of Darwinian adaptation, is a cosy man-made home. Budiansky's provocative and persuasively argued theory is that the domestication of animals is a two-sided deal, driven by evolutionary pressures, explaining why a dog can be a pet but a chimp has to be a flatmate.
The Personal World: John Macmurray on self and society, Floris £14.99
Macmurray, who died in 1976, was professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University, and his approach to Ethics, drawing on his own Calvinist upbringing and Christian socialism, has a renewed resonance today (the warmly appreciative introduction to this book being by Tony Blair). The extracts collected here outline Macmurray's views on science, religion and politics, arguing that we are all the products of the society in which we act.
The Lost Tribe, Edward Marriott, Picador £6.99
In 1993 Marriott read about the discovery in Papua New Guinea of a "lost tribe" who dressed in leaves and used stone tools. Unable to gain official permission to visit them, he went illegally, hoping to unravel fact from legend. Marriott describes the dubious exploits of earlier adventurers in a country where the pidgin term for helicopter is "Mixmaster bilong Jesus", and unfolds a riveting story of cultural confrontation which ends in tragedy.
The Latecomer, Polly Walshe, Minerva £6.99
Walshe's accomplished and very enjoyable social comedy tells the story of Jenny, the "latecomer" to an established group of friends when she falls in love with Trevor and has to learn to cope with his awful chums Penelope and Dick. Trevor runs off with another woman after a spiritual workshop, and the novel unfolds through the viewpoint of each character. A familiar structure, but you don't often see it done to such convincing effect.
Diamond Geezers, Greg Williams, Fourth Estate £6.99
The opening pages of this tale of loansharking in London's East End are so nasty I nearly gave up, but we're soon reassured that this is a story with a conscience. In fact, the subplot about a bent council leader accused of ignoring race attacks is ultimately less compelling than the colourfully thuggish antics of Williams' lowlife do-whatters, in a debut which sometimes feels a little second-hand, but packs a satisfying punch nevertheless.
A Safe Area, David Rohde, Pocket Books £8.99
Rohde, who won a Pulitzer prize for his work in Bosnia, was one of the first journalists to discover the mass graves of victims of the Srebrenica massacre. Using the testimony of witnesses including a Dutch peacekeeper, a Muslim housewife and a Serb soldier, he reconstructs the tragic events of the ten days leading up to the fall of the "safe area", where as many as six thousand Muslims were murdered following the UN withdrawal.
One Hundred Years of Socialism, Donald Sassoon, Fontana £14.99
Encyclopaedic both in scope and sheer weight, Sassoon's authoritative survey of socialism in western Europe is a landmark. The bulk of the book is concerned with events since the fifties, and the approach is truly international, with detailed appraisals of economic and historical developments within countries as diverse as Greece, Sweden and Austria. Lucidly written, this is an indispensable guide for anyone with an interest in modern political history.
Elders and Betters, Quentin Bell, Pimlico £10
Bell, nephew of Virginia Woolf, is one of the last survivors of the legendary Bloomsbury set, and he provides a fascinating series of pen-portraits of its greatest luminaries, his tone perfectly encapsulating the uniquely privileged world in which he grew up. Lytton Strachey, Ottoline Morrell and Maynard Keynes are among those remembered, the wife of the latter being a Russian ballerina fond of reciting T.S. Eliot while walking topless in the countryside.
Tell Her You Love Her, Bridget O'Connor Picador £6.99
Metropolitan life is O'Connor's theme, and her stories are an irresistibly comic accumulation of blokes who feel "full of the possible", girls going really mad to Gypsy Kings, and characters like Nicola who's in Enquiries (General) because of her "generally enquiring mind". Using a style which is frenetic, impressionistic, yet deadly accurate in its observation, O'Connor brilliantly unearths the surreal possibilities and bizarre poetry which lurk beneath familiar situations.
It Was An Accident, Jeremy Cameron, Touchstone £6.99
Cameron is a probation officer by day, and his enjoyable tale of East End lawlessness is notable for the wholly convincing voice of its first-person narrator. Nicky Burkett, just out of prison, is asked to gather information following the murder of a policeman, and soon finds himself embroiled in violent goings-on. A humorous touch and a flawless ear for street talk help keep up the momentum of an eventful thriller.
I May Be Some Time, Francis Spufford, Faber and Faber £7.99
Oates' famous last words provide the title of Spufford's boldly imaginative history of polar exploration, which goes beyond the heroism and adventure to penetrate the potent symbolism of the snowy wastes. Each chapter picks up a different theme, sending Spufford on fascinating excursions into Melville and Poe, the preserving effects of ice, or the western myth of the Eskimo, in a delightful fusion of scholarship and speculation.
W.H.R. Rivers, Richard Slobodin, Sutton £12.99
Rivers was the psychiatrist, featured in Pat Barker's "Regeneration" trilogy, whom Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves encountered at Craiglockhart Hospital. He was also a pioneering anthropologist and neurologist, and this admirably comprehensive book includes extracts from his writings in addition to an account of his wide-ranging work and varied life, which brought him into contact with many other leading literary figures of his day, such as Arnold Bennett and Bertrand Russell.
Beyond The Devil's Teeth: Journeys in Gondwanaland, Tahir Shah, Phoenix £6.99
Gondwanaland was the ancient land mass in which India, South America and Africa were once united. Blissfully undeterred by the fact that the split occurred long before humans evolved, Shah set out on an epic journey across the modern continents under the alarmingly vague pretext of looking for antique treasure, magical cults, and the ancient tribe of the Gonds. His colourful travelogue will appeal to lovers of the exotic rather than to geologists.
Oyster, Janette Turner Hospital, Virago £7.99
A small mining community in the opal fields of the Australian outback tries to come to terms with the havoc wreaked on it by Oyster, a Koresh-like false prophet who took his chosen followers underground to await the Apocalypse. The novel unfolds the events gradually, feeding information to the reader in a way that requires a degree of patience, but the shimmering prose and magnificent evocation of setting make it well worth the effort.
The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur; John Gregory Brown, Sceptre £6.99
Lafleur was left disabled after a fall from a tree at the age of eight; now he's a seventy year old artist looking back on his life. An abandoned child in New Orleans, his rescuer was a fellow black who has helped Shelton discover his artistic potential, and his own identity. Dealing sensitively with issues of race and class, Brown's impressive novel is an affecting tale, beautifully told.
The Song Of The Dodo, David Quammen, Pimlico £12.50
Thirty years ago a tiny island was deliberately poisoned in order to study the rate at which species would recolonise it, and the resulting theory of biodiversity is the background to Quammen's study of extinctions and island biogeography, the Dodo being the classic example of what happens when a nasty new predator upsets the ecosystem. The book's digressions into travelogue and anecdote sometimes feel like journalistic padding, but the science is impressively abundant.
Scotland On A Shoestring, Anna Fenge, Mainstream £6.99
Stacks of ideas for free days out, with historic sites that won't cost a penny, and museums and galleries that'll keep you away from the shops. Also a comprehensive guide to fairs and festivals (too bad I missed the Hoy Gala), a list of cheapish B and B's, and more. A reference book rather than a browser, it's crammed with useful info, and just the thing for the financially challenged traveller.
Feng Shui For Lovers, Sarah Bartlett, Vista £5.99
Pronounced "foong shway", apparently, this is the art of arranging your furniture to maximise the flow of energy, and the Chinese have been doing it for thousands of years. Could be handy if you're looking for some unusual inspiration to revamp your interior decor, or want to know how to use that IKEA bookshelf as a tool of seduction, but just try not to sleep in the "wind" region of your bed.
Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding, Picador, £5.99
Bridget is thirty-something, single, and paranoid. She has to cope with "emotional f***wits" in diamond patterned sweaters, "smug marrieds", and a mother whose TV celebrity outshines her own career in publishing. Fielding's novel, based on her Independent column, is hilarious because the observations are so painfully familiar, whether it's Bridget's frantic search for "inner poise" in the midst of a hopeless affair, or her firm but vain resolution to "eat more pulses".
The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara, Canongate £8.99
Winner of a Pulitzer Prize in the U.S., Shaara's epic novel recreating the Battle of Gettysburg has taken more than twenty years to cross the Atlantic. Telling the story from the viewpoint of the Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, Shaara draws on historical sources and uses maps to illustrate the course of events over a period of five days, in a respectful and solidly written account which enthusiasts of the period and armchair generals will relish.
The Voice That Thunders, Alan Garner, Harvill £8.99
The enthralling lectures and essays collected here pursue themes which lie at the heart, visible or otherwise, of Garner's fiction; childhood memories and family history, the mysterious landscape of Alderley Edge, Greek and Celtic myth, the purpose of literature. The insight he gives into the composition of novels such as "The Owl Service" and "Strandloper", and his description of his own manic depression, help shed light on a singular and enigmatic artist.
The Myth of Progress, Yvonne Burgess, Wild Goose £8.99
The argument is a familiar one: "progress" is a patriarchal Western construct (blame it on Genesis), and we shouldn't go round imposing our cultural values on other societies. Taking the form of a meandering personalised meditation in which the philosophical and historical questions remain woolly and frustratingly generalised, the book's appeal will be to those who already agree with the thesis, rather than anyone hoping to be persuaded.
Kinski Uncut, Klaus Kinski, Bloomsbury £7.99
From childhood poverty in pre-war Berlin to fame in the wake of films such as "Doctor Zhivago" and "Nosferatu", Kinski's driving forces remain the same: money and sex, particularly the latter (described in pornographic detail), though none of it appears to bring much happiness. Kinski's only redeeming feature is that he seems to despise himself as much as he loathes the rest of the world, making his autobiography a uniquely grotesque contribution to movie literature.
Matisse's War, Peter Everett, Vintage £6.99
Everett has certainly done his homework for this novel, in which he follows the great artist's movements across wartime France. Every page is brimming with the names of friends and contemporaries, historical cross-references, literary and cultural detail, and the result is a dense and erudite book which it is easier to admire than to enjoy, one crowded with moments of real delight, but which frequently allows the bigger picture to remain frustratingly elusive.
The Secret Sexist, David Bowker, Indigo £5.99
Guy Lockheart writes thoughtful articles for "Woman of Today", but beneath the New Man exterior he's a bloke with traditional preoccupations, and when he's asked by his sister-in-law to be a sperm donor he agrees because he fancies her more than his wife. Hard to see why the women in Lockheart's life should be taken in quite so easily by the facade, but Bowker pulls it off thanks to a sure sense for the comic potential of the situation.
The Web Of Life, Fritjof Capra, HarperCollins £8.99
Complexity, nonlinear systems and Gaia are the keywords in this fascinating book which brings together recent discoveries in biology, cybernetics and mathematics to propose a holistic approach to mind and matter, and seeks to explain what "life" really is. Even if you're not quite ready to chuck out good old-fashioned reductionism this is still an excellent survey of a vast subject area, distinguished by the passion and clarity of its writing.
The Letters Of Private Wheeler, ed. B.H. Liddell Hart, The Windrush Press £9.99
Wheeler was an ordinary man in extraordinary times. A soldier in Wellington's army, he fought in Spain and at Waterloo, and the letters he wrote describing his experiences are a unique record of the realities of military campaigning at the time. The erratic spelling, lack of literary pretension and rough sense of humour all add to the charm and power of this remarkable slice of history.
Holy Smoke, G. Cabrera Infante, Faber And Faber £7.99
Not exactly a history of smoking, more the material for one, presented in no particular order, and without an index. Mainly about cigars, the book also happily digresses into movie history (Citizen Kane: "smoking as character"), literature (Poe didn't smoke much, we learn), and anything else which takes the author's fancy, all presented with wit and considerable style, and adding up to a highly idiosyncratic anthology whose sheer oddness must make it a minor classic.
The Orchard On Fire, Shena Mackay, Minerva £5.99
Edinburgh-born Mackay was the Scottish presence in last year's Booker shortlist with this touching evocation of a fifties childhood, in which April Harlency and her parents leave London to open a village tearoom in Kent. Secret Woodbines with her best friend in an abandoned railway carriage, and April's efforts to ward off the more sinister attentions of an elderly neighbour, form part of a warm and richly detailed picture of the past.
A Firing Offense, George P. Pelecanos, Serpent's Tail £7.99
Pelecanos is an American, hence the spelling in the title, and we're to understand that the "firing" doesn't just refer to industrial relations in the electronics store where Nick Stefanos works. A young stockboy has disappeared, Stefanos investigates, and once he gets away from the world of dodgy Korean video recorders things start to liven up, with Pelecanos bringing an unusual slant and a cool eye to the genre.
Liberty Against The Law, Christopher Hill, Penguin £9.99
Those who have written about the rise of liberty in British history have generally been concerned with the rights of the privileged few; here, Hill brilliantly analyses the lot of the seventeenth century's "landless ex-peasantry". Drawing on ballads and other popular literature of the day, Hill studies the vagabonds, outlaws, dissenters and ordinary folk forced to challenge a legal system which, he argues, represented a powerful instrument of oppression.
Alan Bennett: in A Manner Of Speaking, Daphne Turner, Faber And Faber £9.99
Turner's critical monograph, the first full-length study of Bennett's writing, will be appreciated by anyone who needs to cod an essay on "Talking Heads" at short notice. Lots of telling details here, like the dirty sauce bottle in one screen play which indicates the poor Northern diet, or the grapefruit segments which are "certainly tinned". Throughout her detailed analyses of background, content and form, Turner maintains admirable academic aloofness.
Healing Threads: Traditional Medicines Of The Highlands And Islands, Mary Beith, Polygon £N/A
If you're bothered by a touch of the runs, try some whisky which has been ignited with a match - but put out the flames first, otherwise you'll need some seal oil on your burned lip. Devotees of alternative medicine and anyone with an interest in traditional culture will find this well-researched and highly informative book a delight, and I'm off to gargle some oak bark.
The Art Fair, David Lipsky, Bloomsbury £6.99
Lipsky's mother is a painter, just like Richard Freeley's mother Joan in this stylish and witty roman a clef which sends up the New York art world. Joan receives all the adulation, and then all the backstabbing, which the critical elite can muster, and Richard is her loyal confidant as they tour the Brie and Chardonnay circuit of exhibition openings. Written with wry humour, Lipsky's debut is completely believable and highly entertaining.
Worst Fears, Fay Weldon, Flamingo £5.99
Alexandra Ludd is a successful actress whose husband Ned has died suddenly of a heart attack. We very quickly get the message that Ned has been to bed with most of Alexandra's friends, but she's a lot slower on the uptake, and the gradual confirming of her "worst fears" is really all the book's about. The caustic wit is still there, spasmodically, in Weldon's twenty first novel, but this is one for her fans.
The Puzzle Of Sex, Peter Vardy, Fount £7.99
There are some titles which it's hard to resist, though the pleasures of this philosophical book are strictly cerebral. Vardy's aim is to give a rundown of the ethical issues from a Christian viewpoint, and he puts Biblical attitudes on topics such as homosexuality into their proper context, as well as outlining the contributions of later philosophers and psychologists. Teachers, students, and the ethically perplexed will find it a valuable sourcebook.
Man and Wife, Ann Oakley, Flamingo £7.99
Oakley's father Richard Titmuss was a liberal social historian who was influential in the founding of the welfare state; her mother Kay Miller was a social worker who gave up her own career to support her husband's. Although their lives were devoted to the cause of transforming society, their marriage reflected a more traditional pattern, and Oakley's account of their early years is also a perceptive analysis of the times in which they lived.
A Parent's Guide To Drugs, Judy Mackie, Need2Know £7.99
Everything the worried parent needs to know about drugs, presented in practical and non-alarmist terms, in a slim little volume with enough info to make it well worth the price. As well as a guide to the drugs and their effects, it includes chapters on good communication (snooping around in your offspring's bedroom in search of evidence is not recommended), and a list of addresses and contacts for further help.
Last Of The Savages, Jay McInerney, Penguin £6.99
Two friends meet in an American boarding school in 1965. Patrick is a working class scholarship boy with ambition, Will is the son of a corrupt Southern businessman, longing to rebel. We follow them over a period of thirty years, Patrick becoming a successful lawyer, Will a music mogul, and what raises it all well above standard rites-of-passage stuff is McInerney's attention to social division, and the sheer charm of his writing.
The Hanging Tree, David Lambkin, Penguin £6.99
The skull of a prehistoric human turns up in Kenya, bearing the marks of a violent death. Scientist Kathryn Widd goes to excavate, discovers the mysterious story of a tragic affair which scandalised the region in colonial days, and meets up with a hunk who says things like "You remember that passage in Plato...?". There's quite a lot for Kathryn to sort out, in Lambkin's talky but readable thriller.
Tickle The Public, Matthew Engel, Indigo £8.99
Charting the rise of the popular press from the founding of the "Daily Mail" in 1896 to today's soar-away bonksheets, Engel's witty and highly informative history shows that gutter populism and downright fabrication are hardly new. in 1902 the "Express" was inventing the details of a tragic drowning, and proof that pin-ups were around long before the "Sun's" fateful venture into nudity in 1970 is shown by a very sedate "Mirror" front page of 1908.
Polaroids From The Dead, Douglas Coupland, Flamingo £8.99
A series of mini-stories centred on a Grateful Dead concert and a selection of magazine articles make up this stylishly packaged book, which promises to "define" the nineties, but fails to deliver. The square format and abundant black and white photos add to the sense of coffee-table gravitas, but this is a potpourri of variable quality, which hits rock bottom in a frankly embarrassing "Letter to Kurt Cobain".
The Force Of Fantasy, Ethel S. Person, HarperCollins £7.99
We all do it, whether it's planning how we'll spend our lottery winnings, plotting the boss's death, or engaging in a little mental pornography. Person, a Freudian psychoanalyst, celebrates the creative potential of daydreaming, and also considers the effects of the shared fantasies we inherit from art and myth. With plenty of case histories and historical examples to illustrate her arguments and satisfy the merely curious, it's an interesting tour.
A Brother's Blood, Michael C. White, Penguin £6.99
Thousands of German POWs were sent to America during the war, and White's haunting and impressive thriller is set in rural Maine, where Libby Pelletier's father was supervisor of a logging camp. Decades later, an elderly German arrives hoping to find out about his brother who apparently drowned while trying to escape, and as Libby tries to uncover the truth, the past begins to catch up with her isolated community.
Playing For Thrills, Wang Shuo, No Exit Press £6.99
A guy tears round Beijing, drinking beer, getting laid, and trying to find out exactly what he was doing several years earlier and who he was with, when a murder may or may not have been committed. Hardboiled and very stylish, Wang's take on the "noir" tradition is tremendous fun. All his novels are banned in China, where this kind of thing doesn't go down too well with the tourist board.
Fantasies Of Femininity, Jane M. Ussher, Penguin £9.99
Ussher looks at the "script" of femininity in film, television and popular culture (such as teen magazines), and analyses the far-reaching effects of its assumptions in science, the law, and in the manner in which society conducts itself. She also considers the ways in which women have subverted the stereotypes so as to "reframe the boundaries of sex". The academic pitch makes for slightly heavy going at times, but it's a fascinating survey.
How To Disagree Without Being Disagreeable, Suzette Haden Elgin, Wiley £11.99
The bullet-point format led me to expect another of those spinoff books from management training seminars, but this is much more interesting than that. Elgin, a professor of linguistics, considers "hate speech" and its effects on society. "Angry, cynical people are five times as likely to die under 50 as people who are calm and trusting," apparently, and Elgin proposes subtle verbal strategies that can help us communicate more positively.
The Biography of George Clooney, Andy Dougan, Boxtree £9.99
Hollywood stardom is all about getting the right part. Clooney failed to win the Brad Pitt role in "Thelma and Louise", botched an audition for "Reservoir Dogs" (now there's a thought)... but then along came ER. Fans of the "sexiest man alive" will enjoy Dougan's account of a career which has had its fair share of highs and lows, but has been steered with shrewdness and a lot of hard graft.
Shooting Elvis, R.M. Eversz, Pan £5.99
Mary does what she's told when her biker boyfriend instructs her to take a parcel to Los Angeles Airport. The parcel turns out to be a bomb, and Mary escapes from the mess with the police and a couple of hitmen in pursuit. What follows is blackly humorous and often rather violent, but stylishly told, as the small-town girl finds herself a new life which is not quite the kind she'd expected.
Come Before Christ and Murder Love, Stewart Home, Serpent's Tail £8.99
The title, sensational and meaningless, aptly sets the tone. There's a bloke called Kevin (or possibly Philip, or Ed), who's the subject of mind control experiments (or more probably just plain mad), fond of all things arcane, and into occult sex with women who, it would appear, sometimes end up "horribly murdered". Puerile, unengaging stuff, though if Home is deliberately aiming for ironic banality then at least he's half succeeded.
The Memory Of Water, Michel Schiff, Thorsons £9.99
In the 1980s, French scientist Jacques Benveniste claimed to have found evidence that the very dilute solutions used in homeopathic medicine really can have an effect on living tissue. His work was dismissed by the scientific community as being unrepeatable and poorly conducted, but Schiff, one of Benveniste's co-workers, indignantly argues the case for the defence, and tries to settle a few scores with the opposition.
One Of The Lads: Women Who Follow Football, Anne Coddington, HarperCollins £6.99
Women's involvement in men's football, as Coddington points out, is hardly new, it's just been largely ignored until recently. Based on interviews with female fans, and women whose connection is through marriage or work (one of them is Deputy Chief Exec. of the FA) Coddington's breezy survey takes in every aspect of the game, providing a counterbalance to the "new laddism" exemplified by Nick Hornby and other "soccerati".
Heartache Spoken Here, Stephen Walsh, Viking £9.99
When your wife wants a D-I-V-O-R-C-E and there's a tear in your beer, then you can really start to understand what Country and Western is all about. Walsh took his camper-van onto the lonesome A-roads, and spent a year exploring Britain's C&W culture, in cowboy clubs and small-town gigs from Cornwall to the Highlands, described here in a witty and enjoyable mix of travelogue, music history and bittersweet memoir.
Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood, Virago £6.99
Atwood cleverly embroiders the true story of Grace Marks, a nineteenth century domestic servant convicted at the age of sixteen of murdering her employer, though her guilt has always remained open to doubt. Using various narrative viewpoints and skilful literary pastiche, Atwood unfolds Grace's story through her interviews with a pioneering psychologist who is persuaded of her innocence. Tragic victim or cunning deceiver, Grace remains enigmatic to the end.
The Lone Man, Bernardo Atxaga, Panther £6.99
Set in Barcelona during the 1982 World Cup, Atxaga's elegant literary thriller was originally written in the Basque language Euskera, and concerns Carlos, a former ETA terrorist who, along with two comrades, has given up violence to run a hotel. But as well as putting up the Polish football team Carlos is also harbouring an activist couple on the run. As he finds himself coming under police scrutiny, he is haunted by his own past.
Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity, Akbar Ahmed, Routledge £12.99
Mohammed Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, was one of the key players along with Nehru and Gandhi in the ending of British rule in India, but he is usually remembered in the west as a ruthless and intransigent figure who helped bring about the terrible atrocities which followed partition. Ahmed presents a more complex and sympathetic figure, one whose personal achievements have few equals in world politics.
The Classical Style, Charles Rosen, Faber and Faber £25
First published more than twenty years ago, Rosen's landmark analysis of the formal language of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is reissued in an expanded edition which includes a detailed discussion of Beethoven's late works, showing how the composer's most novel innovations were really a return to the procedures of his youth. The welcome inclusion of the Hammerklavier and Opus 110 sonatas on a specially recorded CD accounts for the lofty price-tag.
The Best Years Of Their Lives, Trevor Royle, John Murray £13.99
Anyone who experienced National Service between 1945 and 1963 will no doubt find this account, incorporating numerous interviews, nostalgic reading. For later generations it provides a fascinating slice of social history during a momentous period, a tribute to the hundreds who died in action, and an amusing insight into army logic, which dictates that the way to deal with a cat trapped hopelessly in a latrine is to blow it up.
Letters Back To Ancient China, Herbert Rosendorfer, Dedalus £9.99
A tenth-century Chinese mandarin travels forward in time, and writes letters home reporting on the strange land of "Zha-ma-ni" in which he is stranded, surrounded by giants with big noses, and frightened by the iron carriage called a "mo-tao-ka". We gradually realise that he is in present-day Munich, and the hapless voyager's encounters with modern life and love make delightful reading.
By The River Piedra I Sat Down And Wept, Paulo Coelho, Thorsons £6.99
Spiritual growth is the theme of Coelho's magical and visionary books, this brief novel being a typical example, if not one of his best. Pilar, a student in Zaragoza, goes to Madrid to meet a childhood friend, now a mystic teacher, and appropriately handsome. They travel together to the Pyrenees and Lourdes, agonising about Otherness, the femininity of God, love, and whether they're in it.
Crackpot Texts, Mac Daly, Zoilus £10
Daly's fictionalised literary-academic spoofing has its moments of real humour, particularly in his disgruntled critiques of Kelman and Gray, though his targets (poststructuralism etc.) often aren't hard to hit. Personally I prefer this kind of cultural medicine in more homeopathic doses, but Daly's "metafictional galimatias" will no doubt raise some smiles (or hackles) among those few who can appreciate the full extent of his erudition and genius, even if I'm not one of them.
Purple Homicide: Fear And Loathing On Knutsford Heath, John Sweeney, Bloomsbury £9.99
Sweeney followed Martin Bell's election campaign in Tatton, and the "Observer" journalist's persistent questioning of Neil Hamilton's dodgy accounting and fascist sympathies drew particularly withering stares from the formidable Mrs. H. His account of the campaign is savage and hilarious, a surreal pantomime in which the Tory agent looks like General Jaruszelski, one of the candidates is probably an alien, and David Soul appears as himself.
Men In Black, John Harvey, Reaktion £12.95
It's not just in "Reservoir Dogs" that everyone wants to be Mr. Black. Throughout history, as Harvey's curious survey reveals, the sombre hue has been in a class of its own, with examples from art and literature showing the sense of power, humility or solidarity black has evoked. The nineteenth century was its heyday, and Dickens' novels provide clues to the social changes that drove the Victorians towards darkness.
Making History, Stephen Fry, Arrow £5.99
A young Cambridge historian teams up with a brilliant physicist and sends a contraceptive pill back in time so that Hitler was never born. Great idea (if rather familiar), but despite the promising ingredients, the clever plotting and the chummy humour, this is a souffle which fails to rise. Fry cares too much about the concept, not enough about his characters, and the lightweight fun is stretched over way too many pages.
The Scenic Railway, Edward Upward, Enitharmon £6.99
On a theme-park railway ride, an elderly man suddenly sees before him decades of history - the trenches, Lenin's Russia, the Spanish Civil War - and finally rediscovers his own distant childhood. A contemporary of Isherwood and Spender, Upward is now in his nineties, and the five stories collected here reflect his lifelong political convictions, fusing dream and reality in perfectly crafted prose of startling beauty, often deeply moving in effect.
Prayer-Cushions Of The Flesh, Robert Irwin, Dedalus £6.99
Irwin returns to the perfumed exoticism of "The Arabian Nightmare" with this lush and stylishly erotic novella, set in an oriental harem where princes are caged until being killed or crowned. Orkhan enjoys the latter fate, and emerges to discover the pleasures of the harem, the sensual divinations of the phallomancer, and the "Tavern of the Perfume-Makers". Minority tastes are catered for by some obliging crocodiles.
A Year's Turning, Michael Viney, Black Staff Press £9.99
Month by month, Viney describes a year at Thallabawn on the Irish coast, where he has lived for many years. This is nature writing at its most evocative and revelatory; Viney discovers the wonder of the humble dandelion, the foraging habits of bees, a beached whale which proves to be a rare and enigmatic species. His own beautiful illustrations enhance the charm of an enthralling and informative book.
Bone Black: Memories Of Girlhood, bell hooks, Women's Press £7.99
bell hooks is an American academic whose previous includes several studies on race issues. Her memoir proceeds, as she puts it, "imagistically", with scenes describing her southern childhood in an alternation of first and third person. This conjures up a picture of the repressive forces she must overcome as she begins to discover her own identity, the power of words, and her vocation as a writer.
Dictionary Of Slogans, Nigel Rees, Collins £5.99
If you're a budding advertising exec who's run out of brainstorms, or if "A million housewives every day/ Pick up a tin of beans and say..." makes you go all misty-eyed, then you'll appreciate this amusing compendium which also includes such obscurities as "AuH2O=1964", used to promote a onetime US presidential candidate, first name Barry (think about it). Worst slogan (from an Indian TV set manufacturer): "Sounds better than it looks".
Little, David Treuer, Granta £9.99
Treuer is a Native American, and his impressive first novel is set in the village of Poverty, named as a joke which "wore off as soon as the paint", and situated in an Indian reservation in Minnesota. The book opens with the digging of an empty grave for Little, a child whose body has never been found, and proceeds through the voices of the various characters, painting a picture of the community over several decades. The writing combines lyricism with powerfully direct narration, and is a remarkable achievement by a young writer to look out for.
The Truth Machine, James L. Halperin, Simon and Schuster £9.99
Since the narrator is a computer, we are told to expect no "scintillating metaphors or artistic imagery", and on this the book delivers impeccably. The story concerns a billionaire software genius who changes the world by inventing the ultimate lie detector machine, falls foul of the law and tweaks his gadget to save himself. Nice idea, too bad it's buried beneath the stifling heap of unwanted detail with which Halperin justifies his futurology. Next time, maybe he should trade his computer for one with a sense of style.
Blair's Hundred Days, Derek Draper, Faber and Faber £7.99
Written by a Labour insider, the book is a day-by-day account starting with the carefully stage-managed celebrations of May the first, and ending in early August with the ubiquitous Minister Without Portfolio apparently holding the fort while the Blairs topped up their tans in Tuscany. Not much dirt-dishing here, but lots of interesting behind-the-scenes stuff, confirming that beneath Gordon Brown's cold facade lies more of the same, and revealing that Blair, in his victory-party address, resorted to code in order to acknowledge the help of the much-maligned Mandelson, whom Blair calls "Bobby".
Oscar Wilde, Richard Ellmann, Penguin £9.99
Reissued as a tie-in with the newly-released biopic, the flowing-maned figure on the cover is not Oscar, but Stephen Fry, complete with green carnation. Wilde himself is relegated to the plates inside, and film-goers will be pleased to find that the great aesthete does indeed bear a gratifying resemblance to his modern counterpart. The book itself, ten years on, remains a classic of biographical writing. Ellmann's prodigious research, rather than serving as an end in itself, is used to give shape to the glory and tragedy of Wilde's life and work.
Sex In Long Term Relationships, Klay Lamprell, Allen and Unwin £7.99
This is one of those books put together out of no-holds-barred first-person accounts in which "only the names have been changed". Short interludes provide a modicum of analytic respectability, but really this is your typical through-the-keyhole stuff, all about who likes doing what to whom and how often, written in peek-sized chunks with precious little indication of what goes on in the rest of these people's lives. Hardly knew it was Australian until I encountered Jack (machinist, 26) going "out bush". Enlightening, stimulating or simply soporific, depending on your point of view.
An Awareness Of March, Alison Dye, Sceptre £6.99
New York journalist Jackie Molloy remembers the events surrounding a murder thirty five years earlier with which he was intimately involved. Deft time-switching reveals Molloy's troubled background, and a sad and solitary past, when his taste for voyeurism made the victim known to him before his paper put him on the case. The crafted prose is sometimes just a bit too precious for my taste (we can't even have a drop of rain without it becoming "a dank liquid bearing waste"), but full marks for tight pacing and a cracking story.
The Hottest State, Ethan Hawke, Flamingo £5.99
If you like the sort of Hollywood kid romance found in films such as "Reality Bites" (in which Hawke starred) then you might manage to stomach this, since it's basically the same sort of candyfloss minus the soundtrack. It's all here: the coy chat-up; meeting the Ex; falling out. We even get the lovers-in-the-rain routine, all told with magnificently unironic self-absorption, and saved only by jaw-dropping nonsense like his "strange desire to make it with her, to burst through her dress, taking her like a Scotsman." Save your cash, wait for the movie.
The Age Of Anxiety, ed Sarah Dunant and Roy Porter, Virago £7.99
If you're suffering from a spot of millennial angst then try this collection of essays which take on the various terrors of the age and the ways we deal with them. Violence, social fragmentation and new technology are all given the treatment, the best pieces being those most specific in scope, such as the late Oscar Moore on AIDS, Fred D'Aguiar on race, or philosopher Mary Midgeley on our attitude to the environment. The book ends with novelist Bidisha Bandyopadhyay (born 1978) putting us oldies in our place.
In This Dark House, Louise Kehoe, Penguin £6.99
Kehoe's father, the distinguished Russian architect Berthold Lubetkin, left his thriving London practice in 1939 to manage a small farm appropriately called World's End. Here, the brilliant and charismatic Lubetkin used his family's isolation as an opportunity to inflict his own miniature form of Stalinism, noting down every trivial indiscretion, encouraging his children to victimise one another, and winning devotion through fear. It was only after his death that Kehoe was able to unearth the truth he had carefully concealed regarding his origins, which she reveals in this astonishing and deeply moving memoir.
Is Conservatism Dead? John Gray and David Willetts, Profile £8.99
"Two brains" Willetts made the front pages last year after a parliamentary committee investigating the cash-for-questions cover-up was left unimpressed by his mastery of eighteenth-century English. His earlier rallying cry to the Right, arguing the case for "Civic Conservatism", is reprinted here with an upbeat postscript to the Armageddon he helped engineer, more or less saying "I told you so". In the other half of the book, Gray blames the Tory collapse on "ideological hubris", a conclusion which many, even within the party, will probably be inclined to endorse.
Five Black Ships, Napoleon Baccino Ponce de Leon, Picador £7.99
A Uruguayan first novelist of considerable power tells the story of Fernando Magellan, who, you may remember from schoolbook history, set out in 1519 to sail round the world. The first-person narrator is Juanillo Ponce, a converted Jew and Magellan's jester, whose lyrical, expansive testimony gives an elegantly archaic tone to this dreamlike but thoroughly-researched tale of seafaring and adventure, in which the wealth of detail, bawdy anecdotes and captivating digressions are never allowed to sink what is, at heart, a truly magnificent yarn in the grand traditional manner.
In Another Place, Not Here, Dionne Brand, Women's Press £7.99
Born in Trinidad and now living in Canada, Brand is a poet and film-maker whose involvement in Black Power and Grenadan independence is reflected in her first novel. Elizete is abandoned by her family as a young girl and forced into a married life of grim hardship; Verlia is a charismatic political activist who returns to her island home after fifteen years in Toronto. Their love affair is told from alternating viewpoints, the effect being rather uneven, but the book is particularly striking in its rich and evocative use of Caribbean English.
The Scent Of Dried Roses, Tim Lott, Penguin £6.99
The author's mother killed herself soon after she had nursed Lott back to health following his own bout of suicidal depression; but this award-winning unearthing of his family's past is really more about painting a portrait of "little England", his parents being rendered as Mr. and Mrs. Average in a quasi-novelistic style which is troublingly detached. Lott succeeds in his sociological aims, but I can't help questioning the judgment and motives of someone who, describing his mother's death, can concern himself with the elegant phrasing of a "blue necklace of rope".
For Fear Of The Angels, Charles Pickstone, Sceptre £7.99
"How sex has usurped religion" is the enticing theme, the author being an Anglican priest who argues that the quest for "primordial mystery" which was once the preserve of religion is now just as likely to be pursued between the sheets. While acknowledging the "valid" spiritual dimension of sex, Pickstone aims to debunk the increasing atmosphere of reverential mythology which surrounds it. Putting sex in the context of other "substitute religions", he examines our attitudes to childhood and marriage, art and pornography. Intelligent stuff for the morally perplexed of all persuasions.
A Little Light Weeding, Richard Briers, Robson Books £8.99
Compiled by the selfsame cuddly thespian of "Good Life" fame, a self-confessed late-starter on the gardening front, this quaint and cosily-presented anthology of horticultural reading is one to smile over while sipping your Horlicks after a long day tending the rosebushes. The poems, book extracts and assorted odds and ends are coupled with Victorian-style illustrations, and linked together by breathy snatches of commentary from the inimitable Mr. Briers. Earthworms: "These are jolly useful little chaps although they don't look particularly fetching...". You get the idea.
The Story Of The Night, Colm Toibin, Picador £6.99
Richard is a half-English boy brought up in Argentina, and the first part of the book is a gay coming-of-age story, skillfully written but emotionally detached. After the Falklands war Richard, now working as a translator, is courted by the CIA, forms a relationship with the son of a Peronist presidential hopeful, and confronts the arrival of AIDS. So what we really have is a complex and very compelling amalgam of political thriller and love story, well worth the wait, and succeeding thanks to the considerable quality of the writing.
The Summer Is Ended, Kenneth C. Steven, Scottish Cultural Press £4.95
It's Cam's last summer at home in Ardnish before going to university in Aberdeen. As he goes about his daily life we get recollections from the past, the most significant of which is the memory of his friend Richard, who died tragically. Truth to tell, there's not much more to it than that; pleasant, unobjectionable prose which passes every test of "creative writing", all very sensitive, particularly keen on landscapes and dogs. But at a hundred pages, it's about eighty-five more than this touching little tale really warrants.
Cromwell Against The Scots, John D. Grainger, Tuckwell £14.99
The exiled Charles II landed at Garmouth on the Moray Firth in June 1650; at the same time, Cromwell finalised plans to invade Scotland. Grainger is at pains to tease out, from the tangled background of the English Civil War and the Covenanters' revolt, the truly international nature of what he calls, somewhat contentiously, "the last Anglo-Scottish war". In this two-year confrontation between independent post-revolutionary powers, Charles's aims were frequently at odds with those of the Scots, who lost perhaps ten per cent of the adult male populace fighting for his cause.
Cross Currents: A Childhood In Scotland, Janet Teissier du Cros, Tuckwell £9.99
Born in 1905, Janet was the fifth daughter of Sir Herbert Grierson, a leading academic of his day. Her elegant memoir, published seven years after her death, describes her early years in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, painting a picture of bourgeois life in those cities at the time, and of the distinguished figures whom the gifted young girl encountered. W.B. Yeats and John Gray (the original of Wilde's Dorian) were among her acquaintances, and Janet studied music under Donald Tovey, her admiration for whom amounted to an adolescent crush.
Weird Weather, Paul Simons, Warner £5.99
Weird book; more like a loose collection of low-brow sweepings from a meteorologist's floor. First we get the seriously freaky stuff: showers of frogs, blood, maggots etc (my favourite: a whole pond once fell on someone's head). Unfortunately there isn't nearly enough of this to stretch as far as the back cover, so next it's "extreme" weather; then a nice bit about animals as weather predictors; a potted history of climate; more stuff... Finally he gives up, throws a load of random facts at us which we've heard before, and we've made it to the bibliography at last.
The Monkey's Mask, Dorothy Porter, Serpent's Tail £9.99
Private investigator Jill Patrick is hired to trace a missing poetry student, but becomes rather more interested in the girl's alluring tutor Diana Maitland. A further twist to this lesbian erotic thriller is that the whole thing is written in verse, of a kind which makes the book a swift and very entertaining read, particularly when the hardboiled cop enters the world of poetry readings where "fifteen minutes can stretch like an old rubber band". The snappy stanzas of Porter's stylish, witty whodunit make the time go much more quickly than that.
The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell, Black Swan £6.99
More genre bending, this time from an American debut novelist who gives us an SF "first contact" story touching on themes broad enough to appeal to a mainstream audience. During the next century, radio signals start arriving from another planet, and while governments try to decide what to do, a Jesuit mission sets out to visit the new world of Rakhat. The detailed descriptions of alien wildlife and culture are very much in the SF tradition, as is the prose style, but the missionaries' tragic fate adds a larger dimension to Russell's intriguing parable.
Angela Carter: Writing From The Front Line, Sarah Gamble, Edinburgh University Press £12.95
Since her untimely death five years ago, interest in Carter has boomed to such an extent that, according to legend, she now beats the entire eighteenth century as a topic for doctoral theses. Aimed at the student or well-informed reader, this valuable study looks at all Carter's books, as well as other pieces with an autobiographical content. Gamble places the novels in the context of their times, traces Carter's ambivalent position regarding feminism and pornography, and analyses her approach to the opposition between fiction and reality.
Roger Casement's Diaries, ed Roger Sawyer, Pimlico £10
In 1914 Casement tried to recruit Irish POWs in Germany into a rebel army. He failed, and after returning to Ireland in a U-boat he was captured by the British and sentenced to death. Pleas for a reprieve were silenced by the release of diaries, possibly forged, whose revelations of homosexuality rendered Casement's execution in 1916 politically acceptable. The indisputably genuine and previously unpublished "White" diary of 1910, detailing the public side of Casement's consular investigations into conditions in South American rubber plantations, appears here alongside the notoriously damning "Black" diary of the same year.
The Way Of Qigong, Kenneth S. Cohen, Bantam £7.99
If you feel like your battery's gone a bit flat lately then you need to top up the natural energy which the Chinese call "qi", and qigong (pronounced "chee gung") is the way to do it, through posture, breathing, meditation and diet. Cohen's book is a serious and comprehensive guide, drawing on a good deal of orthodox medical research, and it will be appreciated by anyone with an interest in alternative therapies. If all the stuff about "psychoneuroimmunology" doesn't appeal, just follow the pictures and enjoy practising your "turtle breathing" instead.
Reality And Dreams, Muriel Spark, Penguin £6.99
Tom Richards' latest project is an art-house film based on a girl he once glimpsed, to be called "The Hamburger Girl". Unfortunately he's fallen off a crane during filming, and while recovering he finds his dream gradually being stolen from him by the impinging realities of economics and life. His wife, daughters, lovers and friends are all drawn into a hectic course of events which becomes surprisingly tangled for such a brief and breezy book. A small tale perhaps, but perfectly formed and enormously entertaining too, with Spark's ironic humour very much in evidence.
The Jones Men, Vern E. Smith, Payback Press £5.99
Smith is a distinguished Newsweek journalist, and back in 1974, inspired by a feature he did on the "Jones Men" (heroin dealers) of Detroit, he wrote what still remains his only novel, now reissued in Canongate's interesting Black American crime imprint. The plot is standard, with an over-ambitious dealer ripping off a big drugs delivery, but the rich atmospheric detail and authentic seventies feel makes this a minor classic of its kind.
Tinisima, Elena Poniatowska, Faber and Faber £7.99
Tina Modotti was a silent Hollywood actress, lover of Edward Weston, and an important photographer in her own right. Travelling to Mexico, Tina modelled for Diego Rivera, became a revolutionary, and after another lover died in her arms she was accused of murder and fled to Moscow, ending her days as a Soviet agent. It's one heck of a story, and Poniatowska, one of Mexico's most distinguished writers, tells it in novelistic form. This strategy has its risks and problems, but the extraordinary subject is what matters here, more than questions of technique.
Every Chart-Topper Tells A Story: The Sixties, Sharon Davis, Mainstream £12.99
Certain mystics say your destiny is shaped by the number one single at the time of your birth, in which case this book is a boon for any superstitious child of the sixties, since it goes through the decade's chart-toppers month by month, telling us a bit about each act, and what became of them. Serious musos and incurable nostalgics alike will be grateful for these potted bios of everyone from Cliff and Cilla to Mary Hopkin and Long John Baldry. By the way, mine's "Michael Row The Boat".
The Origins Of Virtue, Matt Ridley, Penguin £8.99
Early advocates of the "Selfish Gene" theory reckoned that pure altruism made no evolutionary sense. In that case, how did we ever develop into creatures with a social conscience (well, some of us anyway)? In this wide-ranging and fascinating account, Ridley ties together recent research in biology, anthropology, philosophy and economics to suggest that being nice to each other might not be such a bad evolutionary strategy after all. Along the way, we also learn why women are more likely to be vegetarians than men, and why plants don't get cancer.
High Latitudes, James Buchan, Panther £6.99
1987, and yuppie culture is in full swing as the stock market crash approaches. Jane Haddon, head of a multinational textiles business, fights to save an ailing factory in Motherwell while trying to keep various skeletons inside her cupboard. Subplots abound, involving Lloyd's, Exxon, arctic exploration, Hitler-loving Tory ministers and a lot more, in a witty, cynical and very intelligent dissection of the Thatcher era. What holds it all brilliantly together is the caustic irony of the bemused narrator, watching his characters teeter helplessly towards the precipice.
Down Among The Gods, Kate Thompson, Virago £9.99
Jessie edits romantic novels and dreams of writing a blockbuster of her own; Patrick is a photographer determined to avoid emotional commitment. Their meeting and the events which ensue are watched over by the god Hermes, who fills us in on Olympian gossip while making sure that the lovers-to-be attend their life drawing class. The hapless mortals don't always sparkle as much as their colourful guardian, but Thompson's debut is a charming urban romance, and a painless way to brush up on Greek mythology.
Hitler's Thirty Days To Power, Henry Ashby Turner Jr, Bloomsbury £8.99
Anyone pondering historical contingency is apt to take Hitler as the classic case of "what if?", and this compelling book, written by a Yale historian, argues that luck played a large part in the crucial events of January 1933, when Hitler was rapidly transformed from political has-been to chancellor. The key players - Hindenburg, Papen and the tragically inept Chancellor von Schleicher - were the ones who dealt the cards, but Hitler knew how to play his hand, and Turner highlights the terrifying way in which pride, hurt feelings and soured friendships can change the course of history.
Saint Andrew: Scotland's Myth And Identity, Michael Turnbull, Saint Andrew Press £7.95
Not a lot is known about the historical life of Andrew, and after recapping his few biblical appearances Turnbull traces the early rise of Christianity and the legendary wanderings of Andrew's relics from Greece where he was crucified (the x-shaped cross is a mediaeval invention, it would seem), to Scotland. Here the Saint's cult grew, steered by the machinations of politics, and the book ramifies accordingly, cramming tons of material into its hundred-odd pages. Hard work, but a useful reference for enthusiasts.
Tom Shields Free At Last, Tom Shields, Mainstream £9.99
This third compilation of Diary columns from the Herald is well stocked with amusing anecdotes and wee chuckles, such as the Clydebank Crime Prevention Panel which offered visitors to its open day a "light finger buffet", or the health and safety course which is run by a Mr. Rex Careless. Wisdom too, from a single mother quizzed by the Child Support Agency about the identity of her child's father. "When ye eat a tin o' beans," she says, "ye don't know which wan made you fart."
Blue Mondays, Arnon Grunberg, Secker and Warburg £9.99
If you want to maintain your trendiest-reader-on-the-block status then try this, a semi-autobiographical novel by a 22-year-old which has taken the author's native Holland by storm. The narrator - Arnon - rebels against his Holocaust-surviving parents, his Jewishness, and his school, eventually finding himself on the streets of Amsterdam where he turns to the prostitutes for company. This could all be very grim, but Grunberg gives it a light touch, producing a quirky and often very funny novel, plotless and meandering, which succeeds in making its anti-hero strangely endearing.
Worldly Goods: A New History Of The Renaissance, Lisa Jardine, Papermac £12
The traditional view of the Renaissance is that it was all about artists rediscovering antiquity, but Jardine proposes a more complex picture. Increasing trade, the advent of printing and the emergence of science produced a consumer culture, and what those great paintings often represent is a wish-list of luxury objects, from expensive mirrors to naked courtesans. Jardine's fascinating and profusely illustrated book links high art and cultural history, assuring us that even the greatest artists were not above worldly preoccupations.
The Penguin Book Of Women's Experience, ed Gloria Norris, Penguin £9.99
Forty-nine American women writers are collected in this rich and varied anthology, mostly contemporary though with a sprinkling from earlier decades, and the extracts trace women's experiences from childhood to old age. Thus we have a twelve-year-old's "green and crazy summer" from Carson McCullers' novel "The Member Of The Wedding", stories and reminiscences of love, work, motherhood and friendship from writers including Anne Tyler, Barbara Kingsolver and Amy Tan, and finally a journal entry from the energetic septuagenarian May Sarton, expressing satisfaction that her long efforts are bearing fruit.
Time's Arrow And Archimedes' Point, Huw Price, Oxford University Press £9.99
Does the past still exist? Can the future affect the present? Big, big questions, and Price provocatively argues that if we could position ourselves outside subjective experience, then the answer to both would be yes. The explanation doesn't come on a plate; his book is hard work, and really aimed at physicists and philosophers. But if words like "entropy" and "nonlocality" get your synapses buzzing then you'll find Price's analysis very stimulating indeed, even if you don't go along with his controversial conclusions.
The Mystery Of The Yellow Room, Gaston Leroux Dedalus £7.99
You might recognise the author as being the creator of "The Phantom Of The Opera", but Leroux's biggest hit in his lifetime was this ingenious detective story, dating from 1908. The victim is the daughter of a scientist working on the "dissociation of matter", she's left for dead in a room locked from the inside, and a Holmesian investigative journalist named Rouletabille steps in to find the rational solution. Leroux's style is appropriately sensational, his plot is convoluted beyond description, and for aficionados of the genre it makes an enjoyably intricate puzzle.
Love, Groucho: Letters from Groucho Marx, ed Miriam Marx Allen, Faber and Faber £8.99
Groucho was a complex man, his detractors saying that he drove three wives to alcoholism, but the figure who emerges from these letters to his eldest daughter Miriam, beginning when she was eleven and spanning thirty years, is very much that of the adorable wisecracker we know from the films. As well as behind-the-scenes chat, we see another side of Groucho; a concerned and doting parent who craves his daughter's admiration, and a performer who remains touchingly insecure about his own genius.
Voice Of The Fire, Alan Moore, Indigo £5.99
Moore is famous as a graphic novelist, his "Watchmen" having done much to raise the genre's critical cred. His first "conventional" novel resembles Adam Thorpe's "Ulverton" in form, being a series of atmospheric stories set in the same location over time, but here the emphasis is more on legend than history. Starting in 4000 B.C. in an extraordinary invented language, his ambitious multi-voiced novel often features vivid scenes of mystery, magic and violence. It's a dense, remarkable brainstorm of a book, and not one for anybody in a hurry.
The Plague Makers: The Secret World Of Biological Warfare, Wendy Barnaby, Vision £9.99
It's a familiar nightmare: a few milligrams of toxin dropped into the water supply, and thousands dead as a result. Barnaby isn't out to dispel any myths here; she's at pains to show how easy, cheap and plausible the scenario really is. The tone shifts uneasily between objectivity and sensationalism, but it's interesting to learn that Stalin planned to give Tito bubonic plague, and unsettling to discover that American white supremacists were recently able to obtain the same bacillus, conveniently freeze dried, by mail order.
Don't Ask Me Why, Tania Kindersley, Sceptre £6.99
Don't ask me either, because I couldn't see much point in any of this. Ash and Virge go to Oxford, make lots of friends and stay up all night saying things which they take to be clever/witty/profound etc. etc. This unenthralling candyfloss - punctuated by essays, holidays and blokes - fills half the book. Then they graduate, live together for a while, and things eventually get tragic in an off-the-peg way. But what I really wanted for this tiresome pair was a few pounds of Semtex under their boeuf en croute.
Why Marriages Succeed Or Fail, John Gottman, Bloomsbury £9.99
No, breakdowns aren't usually due to problems with sex, money, or even compatibility, Gottman has found from his psychological research. Arguing is OK, so is avoiding arguing; but for a marriage to last, the ratio of positive to negative moments should be at least five to one. His interesting book has questionnaires, advice, and potted case histories ranging from the sickeningly perfect to the downright terrifying. But the real key to cutting the divorce rate, it would seem, is for men to do more of the housework.
Girl With Curious Hair, David Foster Wallace, Abacus £6.99
The huge success of Wallace's cult novel "Infinite Jest" prompts the first UK publication of this earlier collection of stories. Wallace is fond of using real-life figures (Lyndon Johnson, American TV personalities), and he has a fascination with popular culture befitting his age. But it's his prose that really sets him apart; sometimes eerily banal, at others so densely observed you're scared to blink, and making ordinary situations seem strangely disconnected from reality. Cleverness and verbosity are other key ingredients, and the effect is often brilliant.
Scottish Samurai, Alexander McKay, Canongate £8.99
A photograph of 1905 shows a reception in Japan for Admiral Togo, surrounded by dignitaries and traditionally-clad women. Behind him stands Thomas Glover, born in Fraserburgh in 1838, and a crucial figure in the admiral's recent success against the Russian fleet. A resident in Japan from 1859, Glover made his fortune as an arms dealer and shipping magnate, helping the expansion of the Mitsubishi corporation, and acting as adviser to the Japanese government. He also managed to fit in an affair with the real-life Madam Butterfly. A truly extraordinary Scot, remembered in this lively biography.
Justice, Larry Watson, Pan £5.99
The setting is Montana in the early decades of the century, and a series of episodes, moving back and forth in time, depict scenes from the life of Sheriff Julian Hayden and his family, beginning with his sons getting themselves into trouble with the locals on a hunting trip. In fact the book is more like a collection of short stories than a novel, each piece self-contained and beautifully crafted, and treating familiar themes in a way which holds the attention, but doesn't really leave a lot to chew on.
Homage To Robert Frost, Faber and Faber £7.99
Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott each contribute an essay on America's favourite twentieth century poet, one whose homely image and sheer celebrity (crowned by his oration at President Kennedy's inauguration) has earned him derision as well as praise. It's the ambivalence of these essays (especially Walcott's) which is one of their chief delights; unqualified admiration would make for dull reading, but what Brodsky and Heaney admire is Frost's darkness, his deep indifference, which they reveal through detailed analyses of his poetry.
William The Lion 1143-1214, D.D.R. Owen, Tuckwell £14.99
Owen says he was moved to write this book when a friend confessed to knowing little Scottish history before Bannockburn. The friend is not alone, and Owen sheds welcome light on a period which even the Scots are more likely to associate with another Lion, England's Richard I. As well as the gore and politics of cross-border warfare, Owen unearths a thriving Franco-Scottish culture long predating the Auld Alliance, from which the Romance of Fergus, written in French by an unknown Scot, survives as one of the earliest examples of Scottish literature.
Skating To Antarctica, Jenny Diski, Granta £6.99
Whiteness reminds Diski of the safety of a psychiatric hospital she once stayed in; ice equals childhood skating lessons. She therefore decides to visit the Antarctic and write a book mixing travelogue and personal history. Readers interested in the snowy wastes will be disappointed however, since it's the unexplored, disturbing territory of Diski's past which really concerns her. She craves the sensory deprivation of her (white) cabin more than the distractions of penguins and icebergs, which prompt only the superficial observations of someone whose mind is elsewhere.
The Science Of The X-Files, Michael White, Legend £9.99
As we all know, there isn't any science in The X-Files, at least not of a kind that withstands a moment's examination, but there are plenty of nice ideas floating around these days about wormholes in time, spontaneous human combustion, ghosts etc, and they're nicely wrapped up in this entertaining mixture of the nearly plausible, the frankly iffy and the downright ludicrous. Lots of arcane terminology and conversational fodder here for bar-room pundits of the unexplained, though it's best consumed with a hefty dose of sodium chloride.
Love Warps The Mind A Little, John Dufresne, Jonathan Cape £9.99
Aspiring writer and philandering husband Lafayette Proulx is thrown out by his wife, then turns to his lover Judi whose farcically dysfunctional family serves to fuel the "humour" element of what is supposed to be a funny book. "Laf" gets fascinated by some characters he's writing about, Judi gets cancer and we lurch towards the "meaningful", but by now we no longer care. This is a novel sincerely in love with itself, its narrator having all the charm of a salesman you can't wait to shut the door on.
R.D. Laing: A Life, Adrian Laing, HarperCollins £9.99
Written by his son, the book traces Ronnie's path from modest Glasgow origins to international fame as one of the world's most influential psychiatrists. Laing's interest in LSD, Zen and poetry helped secure his status as a counter-culture guru of the seventies, but his fondness for drink was to have unfortunate consequences. This is a balanced, warts-and-all account of a brilliant and ambitious man who devoted his life to finding the causes of madness in family relationships, but frequently neglected the tensions he created within his own.
Bird Girl And The Man Who Followed The Sun, Velma Wallis, The Women's Press £6.99
The difference between a legend and a novel is that one has grandeur while the other has psychology; combining the forms risks sacrificing both. Wallis, a native Alaskan, retells a traditional story learned in childhood, but the naive style she adopts rather cramps the narrative. She also adds a distinctly contemporary slant to the tale of Bird Girl, who rejects marriage and motherhood to become a hunter, but her book will appeal to those with a taste for myth, and an interest in the culture of indigenous peoples.
The Sickening Mind: Brain, Behaviour, Immunity and Disease, Paul Martin, Flamingo £7.99
Orthodox medicine says that every sickness has a purely physical cause; others proclaim that disease is all in the mind, and positive thinking will cure it. Martin, a distinguished scientist, takes the middle road in this fascinating study of the mind-body link, revealing that fear was more lethal than missiles during the Gulf War, and that some personalities are more cancer-prone than others. Fictional "case histories" from classic literature add to the pleasure of a richly informative book.
Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels, Bloomsbury £6.99
Easy to see why this novel about a Jewish refugee's life in occupied Greece and post-war Canada has been heaped with praise and prizes. Powerful subject, plentiful gobbets of archaeology, history, geology; and an abundance of over-wrought prose of the kind which sits up and begs to be admired. But as the memoirs of a sixty year old man it left me unconvinced, and Michaels' relentless, self-conscious pursuit of metaphor simply gets in the way of a good story which film directors looking for the next "English Patient" will be keen to unearth.
The Penguin Book Of Food And Drink, ed Paul Levy, Penguin £9.99
Great for dipping and browsing, this mix of culinary essays, journalism, and literature includes S.J. Perelman parodying Chandler in "Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer", Jane Grigson giving us the recipe for Proust's madeleines and lime tea, and Marinetti denouncing pasta in the "Manifesto Of Futurist Cooking". Robert Irwin reports on attempts to revive "murri", an extinct Middle Eastern dish of rotted bread which looks like "a furry black kitten with pink patches". You eat the black bits, apparently.
The Four Last Things, Andrew Taylor, HarperCollins £6.99
Sally is a Church of England curate, her husband is a Detective Sergeant, and their daughter Lucy gets abducted from the care of a childminder by a man claiming to work for Santa Claus. Religion, crime and contemporary parental nightmares are thus neatly sewn together in this mechanically efficient but fundamentally nasty thriller, which has a bit of literary cred thrown in courtesy of Sir Thomas Browne, and is the first instalment of a proposed trilogy.
Downshifting, Andy Bull, Thorsons £9.99
You poor thing. Successful career, with a car and mortgage to match, but somehow life in the fast lane has lost its appeal. Then take comfort from "downshifters" such as Fiona, who quit Coopers and Lybrand, saw the light while wandering glumly round Harvey Nick's, and now runs her own clothes business. Sounds more like "side-shifting" to me, but the humbler case studies in this book will offer inspiration to anyone who seeks a more fulfilling work pattern, and can cope with a drop in income.
Beginnings, Edward W. Said, Granta £12.99
More than twenty years after its original appearance in the U.S., Said's engrossing analysis of "beginnings" in literature is published here for the first time. Written when post-structuralism was just beginning to make an impact outside France and the literary canon was still a secure notion, Said's subjects include Conrad, Hopkins and Hardy, and he provides a useful introduction to the ideas of Vico and Foucault. Predating the excesses of postmodernism, this densely-textured book is imbued with academic calm, and a sense of profound respect for the literature discussed.
The Tale Of A Dog, Lars Gustafsson, Harvill £8.99
Gustafsson, one of Sweden's most distinguished literary figures, is now in his seventies; but this wry, meandering novel set on a Texas university campus has a surprisingly youthful feel, and a decidedly Nabokovian flavour. Erwin Caldwell is a mildly lecherous judge, his old Dutch philosophy professor dies suddenly and is revealed to have been a Nazi, and a dog gets killed. That's about it, really; nothing much happens, but Caldwell's musings on mediaeval logic and the pleasures of cocktail parties make for a diverting read.
The Supernatural Highlands, Francis Thompson, Luath Press £8.99
This well-researched little book is an ideal introduction to the folklore of the Highlands and Islands, written by someone who takes very seriously the ancient continuity of Gaelic culture, and asks us to keep an open mind about second sight, or the power of magic. There's historical information on figures such as the famous Brahan Seer, who predicted the Clearances (but may never have existed), chapters on witchcraft and fairies, and a few rhyming charms to try for yourself.
City Lights: Voices Of The Homeless, Big Issue £5
Vendors of The Big Issue In Scotland have their own writing groups in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and there are contributions here from all parts of the country, compiled from the magazine's City Lights pages. The poems, stories and anecdotes are a mixture of pain and hope, sometimes harrowing, often very moving, and a mighty jab to whatever conscience our society still lays claim to. The editor notes that some of the authors are now dead, others have simply disappeared.
Original Bliss, A.L. Kennedy, Virago £5.99
The title-piece, which takes up half the book, is an unlikable novella about a woman's relationship with her nasty husband and a vaguely defined cybernetics professor. It's in the shorter stories that Kennedy is closer to form, with the perils of air travel, petty theft in a TV costume department, and the unexpected potentials of having a lodger being among the subjects treated with characteristic sharpness and poise, as Kennedy explores the finer subtleties of sexual anxiety and modern love.
The Medicine of ER, Alan Duncan Ross and Harlan Gibbs MD, Flamingo £7.99
Unauthorised TV latch-on's like this are a burgeoning genre; I'm still waiting for the "Crimewatch Guide to Breaking and Entering". This hypochondriac's paradise will teach you how to yell "Saline, D5W!" with confidence and authority, and includes medical horror stories from real-life as well as the series. Some of it's just plain weird, as when the inventive (or merely desperate) authors delve into history to imagine Doctors Lewis, Ross and Greene doing field surgery on casualties of the Peloponnesian War, circa 400BC.
The Ugliest House In The World, Peter Ho Davies, Granta £9.99
Davies's parents are Welsh and Chinese and he now lives in the US, which helps account for the international flavour of this fine debut collection. The timescale is equally wide-ranging, with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid chasing ostriches in Patagonia, and a bad case of flatulence in the Zulu War, set alongside the thoughts of a present-day crisis-line volunteer. At times reminiscent of Julian Barnes, Davies's writing is witty, intelligent and highly polished, and he's definitely a name to watch.
American Skin, Don De Grazia, Jonathan Cape £9.99
When his parents are busted for drugs, Alex runs away to Chicago and joins a skinhead gang. But don't worry, these are nice multicultural skinheads, who do the world a favour, really, by beating up the Nazis from the other side of town. This testosterone-charged scenario sits uncomfortably astride an episodic coming-of-age novel, in which sensitive narrator falls for girls, bonds with buddies, and reminisces about his Dad and his dog called "Lovie". The beginnings of "new skinhead-ism", perhaps.
This River Awakens, Steve Lundin, Sceptre £10
More rites-of-passage; though this time the setting is rural Canada, where twelve-year-old Owen teams up with gang, meets girl, and suffers all those familiar growing pains so crucial to young trans-atlantic male novelists. But Lundin also equips his book with some interestingly unpleasant characters (including a mink farmer who enjoys torturing his livestock), and gives us a decent plot involving a washed-up corpse without a face. The high-gloss prose is sometimes a bit too beautiful for its own good, but that doesn't spoil the effect of this atmospheric debut.
The Misconceiver, Lucy Ferris, Sceptre £10
It's 2026, and in a US which has made abortion illegal, "misconceivers" provide the back-street solution for women with unwanted pregnancies. Phoebe is one such, though by day she works as a computer virus extractor. The story takes its time, and fans of future tech will find the scenario a little tame, but what the novel is really concerned with is the ethics of the abortion debate, and Phoebe's emotions as she attempts to come to terms with the loss of her sister, and the death of a twelve-year-old she failed to help.
Vaporetto 13, Roberto Girardi, Sceptre £10
American currency trader Jack Snipe is assigned to Venice and quickly gets the hots for mysterious, enigmatic and resolutely two-dimensional Caterina. We soon get the idea that she might be some kind of bonkable ghost, and while it's easy to see what's in it for Jack (though his metaphors for what they get up to are frankly laughable), for the reader it's more like going through someone else's holiday snaps. Even the author doesn't seem to believe in any of this hogwash, so it's hardly surprising that I didn't either.
Michael Tippett, Meirion Bowen, Robson £14.99
A sadly well-timed re-issue, this study of the late composer's works has been expanded to include all his compositions up to "The Rose Lake", with which Tippett serenely concluded his career of sixty years. Part of the "Contemporary Composers" series, and written by a long-time friend and associate of Tippett, the book provides an authoritative insight into the creative processes behind the compositions, drawing on sketch material, and explaining how Tippett's wide reading, his politics and his sexuality all had some influence on his music.
Crows Over A Wheatfield, Paula Sharp, Bloomsbury £6.99
Melanie Ratleer has followed the example of her father in entering the legal profession. But Dad's legacy is a mixed one, his haranguing wasn't limited to the courtroom, and Melanie's brother has been left mentally scarred. The complex plot hinges on the American judiciary's treatment of domestic violence, and while the broad canvas maybe gets a little overcrowded, the unsettling detachment of Melanie's narration and the author's marvellous evocation of small-town America help bring about a memorable and compelling read.
The Good Retreat Guide, Stafford Whiteaker, Rider £12.99
If you're thinking of getting away from it all but need something more spiritual than Club Med then you'll find plenty of ideas here. It's a sort of B&B listing for monasteries and communities (Christian, Buddhist and non-religious) where you can find peace individually, with your family or in a group, taking part in activities such as gardening or calligraphy, or else simply relaxing. Britain, Ireland, France and Spain are covered, and if you've ever been tempted then this is the ideal guide.
Unholy Ghosts, Ita Daly, Bloomsbury £6.99
The Irish hospital where Belle works as a gardener is due for closure; Belle will lose her job and her home. As she thinks back on her past, her story unfolds. A Jewish refugee whose Aryan father was killed on the Russian front, Belle was brought up under the watchful eye of crow-like Father Jack, among friends who thought everyone had to be either Catholic or Protestant. Daly's closely-observed novel is a warm evocation of cultures and ideologies which meet without necessarily getting on.
Beginnings, Edward W. Said, Granta £12.99
More than twenty years after its original appearance in the U.S., Said's engrossing analysis of "beginnings" in literature is published here for the first time. Written when post-structuralism was just beginning to make an impact outside France and the literary canon was still a secure notion, Said's subjects include Conrad, Hopkins and Hardy, and he provides a useful introduction to the ideas of Vico and Foucault. Predating the excesses of postmodernism, this densely-textured book is imbued with academic calm, and a sense of profound respect for the literature discussed.
Drugs And The Party Line, Kevin Williamson, Rebel Inc £6.99
With an intro by Irvine Welsh, Williamson's valuable little book aims to counterbalance tabloid hysteria by offering the facts about recreational drug use. Williamson looks at the history of drug prohibition, the tactics of Government health campaigns, and employs a battery of statistical data to back up a well-argued case for legal reform. It's an important contribution to the debate, and has the added fascination of being printed on bog-roll-coloured cannabis hemp paper.
Ingenious Pain, Andrew Miller, Sceptre £6.99
Miller is a graduate of East Anglia University's Creative Writing course, but I wouldn't have guessed, I'm glad to say. His very enjoyable debut is a fantasy set in the 18th century which tells the story of James Dyer, a surgeon who was born unable to feel pain. Comparisons with "Perfume" are tempting, but this is a very different kind of book; rich in period detail, hearty in tone, and unfolding an epic plot which takes its hero from Catherine the Great's Russia to a madhouse in London, encountering a host of colourful characters along the way. It's a fine tale, and a lot of fun.
The Duchess Of Windsor, Michael Bloch, Phoenix £10.99
There's been endless speculation about the relationship between Edward and Mrs. Simpson, and this brief illustrated biography never misses a chance to hint at the possibility that she may have died a virgin, or even that the flat-chested, "masculine" Wallis was "not an ordinary woman". These remain no more than hints, however. What is certainly true, and is amply revealed here, is that Wallis, whatever her gender, was a shallow and not particularly intelligent individual, who was very fond of jewellery and knew how to throw a good party.
Volcano and Miracle, Gustaw Herling, Penguin £8.99
Herling was born in Poland in 1919, and his armed resistance to Nazi occupation was rewarded by internment in a Soviet labour camp. After the war he settled in Naples, and for more than twenty-five years the Polish monthly Kultura has been publishing his lofty, erudite "Journal Written At Night", from whose instalments this book is selected. Herling dislikes autobiography, and the entries betray little of the author's daily life; however their rich fund of literary anecdote, and Herling's sheer breadth of learning, make for absorbing, if somewhat lugubrious, reading.
War Of Words: Women and Men Arguing, Elizabeth Mapstone, Chatto and Windus £10.99
"What really matters," Dr. Mapstone tells us, "is not so much what people actually say but how people remember what was said." Her researches into subjects' recollections of their verbal battles suggest that when men argue they're considered "rational and firm", while women get labelled "emotional or aggressive". Looking into such stereotyping at work and in relationships, Mapstone broadens her aggenda, going on to speculate about the future of post-feminist society.
Naked, David Sedaris, Indigo £7.99
Sedaris's readings on US radio have made him something of a cult figure, and his first story collection, "Barrel Fever", was one of the funniest books I read last year. The follow-up is tamer in style, less camp, more mainstream, and frankly not as good, but it's still worth a look. Sedaris's wanderings take in Greek relatives, fruit-picking in Oregon, and the nudist colony of the title-piece, where he enjoys a game of petanque, and discovers why visitors are ordered always to carry a towel.
Knowing ME, ed Caeia March, Women's Press £8.99
In other words knowing Myalgic Encephalomyelitis and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, of which the editor is herself a sufferer. She's brought together the experiences of a large number of women equally sick of hearing it called "yuppie flu", and the book offers their first-person accounts and practical suggestions for coping, interspersed with poems and cartoons. For many of the writers, the illness has prompted a re-think of attitudes, values and relationships; for all of them, the condition has completely changed their lives.
The Hare, Cesar Aira, Serpent's Tail, £9.99
The fifty-year-old Argentinean novelist is described on the bookjacket (several times, in fact) as the new Borges, so I was eager to read this first of his seven books to have been translated into English, which tells the story of a British naturalist roaming the pampas in search of a legendary and elusive hare. Place and period are generalised, the style is dry, ironic, playful, and it's altogether an engaging read. It's not particularly Borgesian, though; more a case of conventional magic realism done well.
Hunting Down The Universe, Michael Hawkins, Abacus £7.99
Much of the universe is invisible to us; the question is, how much, and what does the "missing mass" consist of? Hawkins, an astronomer at Edinburgh's Royal Observatory, reckons that black holes may account for 99% of the material universe, and his controversial theory forms part of this enjoyable tour of modern cosmology. He also considers the philosophical problems which beset the Big Bang, and exposes the surprisingly vindictive personality clashes which have helped decide the fate of some earlier astronomical theories.
McX: Scotland's X-Files, ed Ron Halliday, B&W £6.99
Familiar formula is given a Scottish dimension in this line-up combining hoary old favourites like the monster of Glamis, the Flannan Lighthouse mystery, and of course Nessie, together with more recent wonders such as fireballs in Shetland and the spate of UFO sightings in the "Falkirk Triangle". Each gets a "McX" file of a couple of pages, with the emphasis being firmly on the "unexplained", and for fans of this sort of stuff (among which I count myself, albeit of the scoffing kind) it's quite a lot of fun.
253, Geoff Ryman, Flamingo £6.99
This is the print version; the original is at www.ryman-novel.com and depicts 253 passengers making a seven minute journey on the Bakerloo line of the London underground. Each passenger has a one page biography, and the website links their lives in a mindlessly fascinating, easily addictive way. Trouble is, the effect is largely lost on paper where the banality of the prose is cruelly exposed, since everything is written in the anonymous, blandly jokey and kilobyte-saving style which, sadly, characterises the Internet. Great concept, but a very boring book.
Hitler and Geli, Ronald Hayman, Bloomsbury £7.99
This biography of Hitler's early years focuses on his relationship with the woman who, far more than Eva Braun, was the true love of his life. Almost twenty years his junior, Hitler's niece Geli shared a flat with "Uncle Alf", whose obsessive need to control her life drove her to suicide (perhaps) at the age of twenty-three. Hitler nearly killed himself soon afterwards, and if only he had, then the death of a charming and fascinating young woman would not have been in vain.
The Lost Manuscript, Rubem Fonseca, Bloomsbury £6.99
Brazilian film director meets dancer one night; she leaves a package of stolen jewels in his flat, then gets murdered. He sees his chance to finance the film he's scripting (based on a story by Isaac Babel), and heads for Berlin, where yet more intrigue awaits. Great ingredients, too bad it all feels like reading the poorly translated subtitles to an over-acted foreign movie. Fonseca's director-narrator is moody, arrogant and narcissistic, so at least there's one respect in which his portrayal of the film world is perfectly believable.
Dick For A Day, ed Fiona Giles, Indigo £6.99
"What would you do if you had a dick for a day," is the crassly sensational question posed to women writers in this anthology, and the responses, for the most part, are disappointingly predictable. Gender switching is already an over-mined subgenre, and any story taking up the theme has got to work pretty damn hard to say something new. One writer pithily suggests that the only reason why any woman would want a penis is so that she doesn't have to queue for the loo.
Who Lies Where, Michael Kerrigan, Fourth Estate £9.99
This is a book of famous graves; or perhaps that should be the graves of the famous, because it's a lot of fun looking up the names in the index, and finding the obscure places where some of the mighty lie buried. The book covers Britain and Ireland, listed geographically, and Kerrigan guides us through the nation's churchyards and cemeteries with a lively, opinionated commentary which shows no undue reverence towards the men and women (and dogs) whose claim to fame he recounts.
Present Poets, ed Jenni Calder, National Museums of Scotland £4.99
To celebrate the new Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, due to open at the end of the year, poets were invited to write a piece relating to Scottish life and culture. Out of more than three hundred entries, fifty were made into posters for display on hoardings around the building site, and the full set is collected here. The contributors include luminaries such as George Mackay Brown (in one of his last poems), as well as several writers hitherto unpublished, in a varied and stirring anthology.
Leaving Earth, Helen Humphreys, Bloomsbury £12.99
In 1933 two women aviators aim to circle over Toronto for twenty five days in an attempt to set a new endurance record. Though largely restricted to sign language their relationship develops nevertheless, and their aerial adventure is counterpointed with the narrower horizons below, of amusement park and boxing hall, where Depression and the rise of Fascism make their mark. The mannered and overly poetic style of the opening chapters eases as the story takes flight, but the aviators' exploits remain an enigmatic journey to nowhere.
Countess Dracula, Tony Thorne, Bloomsbury £6.99
She came from Moravia, not Transylvania, and belongs to a later century than the better-known Vlad the Impaler, but Elisabeth Bathory earns her nickname thanks to a penchant for torturing and killing her young female servants, and allegedly bathing in their blood. Thorne has made new translations of documents from the time, including statements given at the Countess's trial, and his book is an absorbing exploration of the culture and politics of sixteenth-century Hungary, in which he attempts to unravel historical fact from lurid fantasy.
Selfish People, Lucy English, Fourth Estate £6.99
Leah and Al live in Bristol with their three kids, argue a lot, watch telly and go to the pub with their mates. Leah fancies a guy who's employed by the community development project she works for, and you can probably guess the rest. Reading this dreary soap opera, I got the strong feeling that a lot of it comes from life, and that's the problem. Too much of it feels like sitting in someone's front room with a bunch of complete strangers, while they try to choose between the Woolpack and the Cambridge.
Remote Journeys Oddly Rendered, Tim Cahill, Fourth Estate £6.99
Opting for a more sedate title after predecessors such as "Jaguars Ripped My Flesh" or "Pecked to Death by Ducks", Cahill offers more of his travel adventures, which this time include a swim at the North Pole (while a couple get married on the ice nearby), lessons in being a cowboy, and crab racing in Venezuela. Cahill's try-anything approach (sometimes with uncomfortable results), his self-deprecatory humour and journalistic attention to factual detail are an addictive mix, compulsively readable and often extremely funny.
The Bacon Fancier, Alan Isler, Vintage £6.99
Sir Francis Bacon in fact, in the title story of this witty historical quartet, the fancier being a Jewish Italian violin maker in eighteenth-century England. We also have Shylock meeting a would-be Golem in Renaissance Venice, an Atlantic crossing with Oscar Wilde among the passengers, and a performer of operatic bit-parts being offered the lead in "Dreyfus: The Musical". The element of pastiche is sometimes just a little too clever for its own good, but Isler is an elegant story-teller, and he's fashioned a convincingly cohesive book from his cast of Jewish heroes down the ages.
The Discovery Of Heaven, Harry Mulisch, Penguin £8.99
Max and Onno meet in Amsterdam and find that they were conceived on the same day. Onno is a translator of ancient languages, Max is the son of a Nazi collaborator, and they share as lover a cellist called Ada. The book is a lengthy excursion both geographical and philosophical, crammed with detail and written with deft irony, as Max and Onno wander round Europe. Reminiscent of Perec or Pynchon in its encyclopaedic breadth and gargantuan ambitions, Mulisch's novel of ideas offers a plentiful dose of highbrow fun.
The Feminization Of Nature, Deborah Cadbury, Penguin £7.99
A few years ago, an award-winning Horizon programme raised public awareness of an apparent catastrophe in the making. Man-made chemicals released to the environment have already been causing alligators to change sex; they may also have been reducing human sperm counts, producing cancers in adults and abnormalities in babies, and potentially threaten our very survival as a species. Here, Cadbury expands on the evidence she presented in her film, bringing the story up to date in a lucid account of a complex, worrying, and enormously important scientific controversy.
Bilton, Andrew Martin, Faber and Faber £9.99
Bilton is a foul-mouthed journalist with Marxist principles (to be played, I'd guess, by Richard E. Grant if the book ever gets filmed), who throws a cup of coffee over the Prime Minister and becomes an instant media celebrity. Martin knows the news world from the inside, and Bilton's employer, a Sunday paper so big it has a special supplement listing all the other supplements, is the book's best gag. But when the story ramifies into global politics, the throwaway one-liners are insufficient consolation for the sheer lumbering silliness of it all.
A Place Of My Own, Michael Pollan, Bloomsbury £7.99
The design, construction and existential philosophy of the garden shed. Pollan, with a bit of inspiration from Thoreau and Gaston Bachelard, decided he needed a quiet corner to work in; but he knew nothing about DIY. With help from an architect friend, he discovers the poetic beauty and hard practicalities of concrete, timber and window putty, assembling a construction which, in true American tradition, represents a journey of spiritual growth through honest toil. His illuminating, instructive and delightfully off-beat account makes home improvement seem almost fun.
The Secret Life Of Dog Owners, Bruce Fogle, Penguin £5.99
After DIY, I'd put dog ownership high on my list of human experiences I can happily do without, but I found this little book strangely fascinating nevertheless. Written by a practising vet in handy bite-sized chunks which are numbered for easy reference, it outlines the psychology of man's best friend, and of the people who dote on them. Some of the factoids are pretty obvious, others quite jaw-dropping. Golden Retrievers, it seems, have a thirty per cent chance of being allowed into their owner's bed; smaller breeds do even better.
Design For Dying, Timothy Leary and R.U. Sirius, Thorsons £8.99
The death of counter-culture guru Leary in 1996 was a media event billed to take place live on the Internet with the great man destined for subsequent cryogenic freezing. It didn't quite happen that way, to Mr. Sirius's obvious disappointment, but Leary's upbeat approach to "de-animation" is an entertaining read, and the book also contains reminiscences from many friends and colleagues. Leary's fractal/quantum/cyber-theory of the universe, outlined here at length, is probably quite profound if you're using the right substances.
One Day As A Tiger, Anne Haverty, Vintage £5.99
Haverty's fine debut is the story of brothers Marty and Pierce, who take over their dead parents' farm in rural Ireland. Marty, a troubled academic hardly cut out for country life, acquires a genetically-engineered lamb whose human DNA helps account for the strange love story which ensues. Competing with the lamb for Marty's affections is Pierce's wife, and as the story twists its way towards a tragicomic conclusion Haverty holds it all together with writing which is fresh, original and very engaging.
Guide, Dennis Cooper, Serpent's Tail £8.99
Dennis is writing a novel about the people he's encountered in the Los Angeles gay demimonde; people who are into child pornography, snuff fantasies, and lots of drugs. Or perhaps he's making it all up, this is just his way of dealing with inappropriate thoughts, and everything's o.k. The book itself is not quite pornographic, and Cooper's narrative technique has its literary merits, but it's all so damn bleak that I don't see what sort of reader this nasty tale can possibly appeal to, other than the cynical and sadistic.
The Killing Of The Countryside, Graham Harvey, Vintage £7.99
Seen a good meadow lately? Probably not, since 97 per cent of Britain's ancient meadowland has fallen victim to modern farming practices. EU and government subsidies are being poured into the pockets of agricultural fatcats and speculators, while smaller and less environmentally damaging family-run farms are struggling to survive, unable to compete with the big players in an industry which is wiping out the countryside. Harvey's analysis, which won him the BP Natural World Book Award, is unlikely to appeal to the 600 people who currently own half of Scotland.
The Diving-Bell & The Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby, Fourth Estate £5.99
Bauby was a successful magazine editor until a stroke in 1996 left him completely paralysed. His only means of communication was to blink his eye while the alphabet was recited to him, and in this way he dictated this book, one letter at a time, which describes his experiences of "Locked-In Syndrome". It's deeply moving of course, but never self pitying, at times even humorous; and apart from becoming a best-selling author, this profoundly courageous man also founded an association for fellow sufferers, before his death last year at the age of forty five.
Virtual History, ed Niall Ferguson, Papermac £10
"What if...?" is the premise of countless novels imagining the consequences of Nazi victory, or of an America still ruled by Britain. As an activity for historians such speculations have usually been frowned upon, but Ferguson, arguing for a "chaotic" theory of history, brings together a fascinating collection of essays looking seriously at these and other questions, including Charles I avoiding Civil War, and Lee Harvey Oswald missing his target. And if Hitler had invaded? Then Britain's version of a Vichy government might have been in Harrogate, with Lloyd George, not Mosley, as its Petain.
Give 'Em Hell, Hari, Ajay Singh, Serpent's Tail £8.99
Hari Rana is head of communications at an American news bureau in Delhi, and an unstoppable writer of letters. His comically idiomatic missives to the press deal with issues such as the price of onions and the world hand-clapping record; longer letters describe cross-cultural misunderstandings and political unrest in the newsroom and beyond. Hari eventually finds himself becoming an unlikely "philosopher in residence" in America, and though the book's diverse strands don't entirely hang together, Singh has created a truly delightful character in this witty and highly original debut.
The Factory Of Facts, Luc Sante, Granta £12.99
Sante starts his book, very oddly, by giving nine alternative accounts of how he and his Belgian family emigrated to America while he was a child. Trouble is, I finished the chapter not really caring which was true, and feeling much less interested in Sante than he is in himself. He returned to Belgium in 1989, now a successful writer based in New York, and his book is an exploration of Belgian identity, biculturalism, his family and - you guessed it - himself. Belgium seems interesting by comparison.
Brandenburg Concerto, Julian Rathbone, Serpent's Tail £7.99
Four trainloads of ammunition appear to have gone missing somewhere between Russia and Germany. Tracking them down are eco-cop Renata Fechter, reprised from Rathbone's earlier thriller "Accidents Will Happen", as well as a Desert Storm veteran turned drag artist, a Polish shoplifter, and some nasty Serbs. Minor inconveniences like childbirth and rape aren't allowed to slow down the action as the plot moves inexorably towards a conclusion which tries to make a political point, but throws the book's last remaining shreds of plausibility out the window.
Contemporary Cinema, John Orr, Edinburgh University Press £N/A
Orr's survey of the last three decades takes as its starting point Pasolini's concept of the "Cinema of Poetry", and goes on to look at the work of contemporary directors such as Atom Egoyan, Krzyzstof Kieslowski and Peter Greenaway. For the average movie-lover (e.g. me), it's very heavy going indeed; this is an academic book aimed at cinema students. But if you can manage to keep track of it all, and feel comfortable with the concept of "free indirect subjectivity", then you'll probably find it very handy.
The Ventriloquist's Tale, Pauline Melville, Bloomsbury £6.99
Melville won the Whitbread First Book Award with this novel, and deservedly so. Set in South America, the story begins with the affair between Chofy McKinnon, a half-Indian from the savannah, and Rosa, an Englishwoman researching Evelyn Waugh. It ramifies into a saga spanning decades, involving the son of an incestuous love between brother and sister. The lightness and energy of the writing never falters, Melville's imagination is wholly equal to the big canvas she works on, and the magical atmosphere perfectly fits a world we know from Marquez and Allende.
Promiscuities: Naomi Wolf, Vintage £7.99
One adjective not applied to Bill Clinton recently is "promiscuous", a word generally reserved, as Wolf points out, for women and gay men. Looking at the way in which women's sexual identities are shaped by society, she follows the style of her controversial bestseller "The Beauty Myth" by concentrating on the experiences of herself and her thirty-something middle class American friends, with chunks of cultural anthropology providing a fascinating bonus. "Yuppie feminism" according to some, but attractively done, and her writing has struck a chord with millions of women.
Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me, Javier Marias, Harvill £6.99
Marias' work is characterised by a cool, detached voice which painstakingly draws out the intellectual nuances of a scene, often leaving the reader to fill in the implied emotions. Set in Madrid, the novel's narrator is a writer who has a one-night stand which ends in the sudden death of his partner; the book follows the ways in which he gradually becomes increasingly involved with her family and its tensions. It's a slow burning story which lingers in the mind, from one of the most gifted authors in contemporary European literature.
The Moral Intelligence Of Children, Robert Coles, Bloomsbury £7.99
Coles is a Harvard professor of psychiatry, a volunteer schoolteacher, and a parent. He is concerned with children's perception of right and wrong, the way in which their "moral imagination" develops; and if the ruminative, anecdotal style makes his "moral archaeology of childhood" seem sometimes more like the notebook of an antiquarian, then that's probably no bad thing. It's Coles' willingness to reflect on his own attitudes, and his personal engagement with the subject, that lend such warmth and sincerity to this absorbing, thought-provoking book.
What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, Daniel Pool, Robinson £9.99
A miscellany of information on daily life in the nineteenth century, rich in intriguing odds and ends. The dust-sifting Mr. Boffin of "Our Mutual Friend" plied a very common trade, apparently, and Victorian recycling even extended to factories for drying out used tea leaves. Austen fans will be glad to find out how Quadrille and Speculation were played, while anyone perplexed by the "van" which Hardy's Tess rode in can discover what sort of vehicle it really was. A curious jumble, absolutely fascinating.
Kissing The Witch, Emma Donoghue, Penguin £6.99
Donoghue puts a new spin on thirteen traditional stories in this captivating collection. Cinderella turns down the prince to go off with the fairy godmother, Snow White decides to sort things out at the palace, and Beauty gets a pleasant surprise when she discovers the Beast isn't just some useless man in a furry suit. Donoghue wisely avoids pastiche; the make-believe settings are matched by language which is rich, sensual, at times quite beautiful in effect, and her book provides deliciously magical bedtime reading for grown-ups.
Her Last Call To Louis MacNeice, Ken Bruen, Serpent's Tail £6.99
Cooper's done time, now he does car repo in London while planning a bank raid. All very convincing. He meets an oversexed American shoplifter called Cassie who's doing a PhD in metaphysics, steals his gun and goes all obsessive on him and, er, suddenly it isn't quite so convincing any more. In fact it gradually becomes a total mess, but what the heck, Bruen keeps up a cracking pace, knows how to get a laugh, and comes up with a suitably violent climax to this stylish thriller.
Kiss This, Gina Arnold, Pan £9.99
Who killed punk? The inquest is mainly concerned with its American incarnation, a different beast from the one which ruled our own streets in the era of the Wombles and Nationwide. Across the pond it was always more of a middle class thing, ripe for sell-out, and evolving to produce such traitors to the cause as the Smashing Pumpkins and Courtney Love, about whom Gina gets pretty angry. Punk is like youth itself, she concludes, obviously unable to bear the conclusion that maybe it's time she just grew out of it.
The Golfer and The Millionaire, Mark Fisher, Cassell £5.99
Even by the standards of how-to-succeed literature, this is poor stuff. Fisher has taken the sort of parable on which the genre thrives ("Once there was a man who didn't believe in himself..."), and turned it into an extended prose fiction which I hesitate to call a novel. Discover your "inner golfer", always play to win, and you too can find happiness and fulfilment with the odd Ferrari thrown in. Not exactly a revolutionary insight, though it's instructive to learn that Jesus "would have made an excellent golfer".
The Princessa, Harriet Rubin, Bloomsbury £6.99
In a way this is a female version of Fisher's book, but Rubin's "Machiavelli for Women", a modern alternative to the philosopher's hints on getting ahead in Renaissance Florence, is a heck of a lot better. Sure, a lot of it is obvious, but at least Rubin knows how to write, and her message of empowerment and emotional strategy is nicely told, with plenty of quotations and true stories helping to illustrate the message that a woman doesn't have to be Machiavellian in order to succeed in love and war.
Infinite Possibilities, Sylvie Germain, Dedalus £8.99
In her native France, Germain's magical, sinister novels have been heaped with prizes including the prestigious Prix Femina. For some years she taught philosophy in Prague, and this city provides the setting for her latest, which tells the story of Prokop, an academic reduced to working as a cleaner by the communist regime, and of his dissident friends. Superficially realistic in style, the writing nevertheless displays Germain's characteristic power of descriptive imagination and emotional intensity as it follows Prokop's spiritual and political re-integration into society.
School Days, Patrick Chamoiseau, Granta £5.99
Another big name in French letters (his cv includes the Prix Goncourt, no less) is the Martinican author of this story of colonial childhood. The "little black boy" has to deal with an education system in which his native Creole is marginalised in favour of French, with lessons about a far-away country which means nothing to him. As well as having an important political message, the book packs a mighty punch thanks to its extraordinary poetic style, which combines the traditions of oral storytelling with a sophisticated literary technique to make a heady and delightful read.
The Bannockburn Years, William Scott, Luath Press £7.95
Since literary prizes seem to be the theme this week, I should mention that William Scott won the Constable Trophy for best unpublished novel with this intriguing historical tale, now rewarded by being immortalised in print, in which a solicitor discovers a mediaeval manuscript written by a commander at Bannockburn. Scott gives a stirring and thoroughly-researched account of the events of the period, and ends his book with thoughts on independence now and then. Congratulations to the author, and I hope we'll see more from him.
Whisky and Scotland, Neil M. Gunn, Souvenir Press £8.99
Gunn, born in Caithness in 1891, was a nationalist, a Zen Buddhist, and one of the most important Scottish novelists of the twentieth century. But before becoming a full-time writer in 1937 he worked as an excise officer in Inverness, and it was during this period that he wrote his charming guide to the national drink, now re-issued, which covers its history, production and consumption, but also digresses into politics, poetry and mysticism whenever the author feels like it. No fan of Gunn or whisky will want to be without this classic oddity.
The People's Palace Book of Glasgow, Mainstream £9.99
To mark the museum's centenary, this large-format book celebrates the modern history of Glasgow in words and pictures. Chapters focussing on the industrial heyday, the effects of the world wars and the changing conditions of domestic life are placed alongside reminiscences of such Glasgow institutions as the steamie, the Barrowland, and holidays doon the watter. Messrs. Connolly, Baxter and Nesbit are in there, of course, as well as an abundance of photos which will be a nostalgia trip for some, an education for others.
Life: An Unauthorised Biography, Richard Fortey, Flamingo £9.99
Fitting four billion years of life on Earth into one readable book isn't easy. Fortey opts for an approach which intersperses the technicalities with jovial asides about eccentric fellow-academics and field-trip mishaps, perhaps hoping to engage the kind of reader who'd probably never open a book like this anyway. But as for the science, there's loads, and it's fascinating, with man-sized water scorpions and mice as large as bears among the wonders revealed. There's no "big idea" being peddled here, just a host of truly magnificent details.
The Dog King, Christoph Ransmayr, Vintage £6.99
Postwar Germany has been reduced by its occupiers to a primitive, pre-industrialised society. In a quarry town which was formerly a concentration camp, granite memorials and bizarre pageants constantly remind the citizens of their Nazi past. A survivor of the camp becomes the "Dog King", and diminishing granite prompts an expedition to Brazil. It's strange stuff, vividly imagined and packed with portentous allusion, and those with a taste for literary fantasy will find much to ponder in Ransmayr's third novel, forbiddingly titled "Morbus Kitahara" in its original German.
Lord High Executioner, Howard Engel, Robson £9.99
Grisly but undeniably fascinating, this is a history of capital punishment, or more exactly of the ways in which the sentence has been carried out down the centuries. It's tastefully done, and interesting for the social history it reveals, such as the extent to which hanging has contributed to everyday speech. "Give him enough rope" is familiar enough, but I hadn't realised that the condemned had to "toe the line" before being "stitched up". And to this day a type of crane still recalls a famous hangman called Derrick.
Quarantine, Jim Crace, Penguin £6.99
In the Judean desert two thousand years ago, four pilgrims endure a "quarantine" of forty days fasting and prayer. One hopes to be cured of disease, another longs to become pregnant; all seek salvation. Nearby, a merchant named Musa is close to death until a man from Galilee comes to his tent. To Musa, Jesus is a miracle worker; Jesus sees the merchant as a devil. The barren setting and small cast mean that dramatic tension is less important here than atmosphere and richness of observation, and Crace's open-ended conclusion will suit both believers and atheists.
Memoirs Of A Spymaster, Markus Wolf, Pimlico £7.99
Wolf ran East Germany's foreign intelligence operation from the fifties until not long before the fall of communism. An unapologetic Marxist, he nevertheless distances himself from the worst excesses of the former regime, and in this readable memoir he comes across as a wily old fox with an engaging sense of humour. Espionage techniques included the use of "Romeo agents" who seduced Westerners with access to secrets, and Wolf recounts his department's most famous coups, among which was the scandal which brought down Willy Brandt.
The Deep Green Sea, Robert Olen Butler, Secker and Warburg £9.99
An American war veteran returns to Vietnam and falls in love with a young woman who was left abandoned as a child. Her dad was a GI, the war vet once had an affair with a Saigon prostitute, and we soon put two and two together as they go in search of missing mum. The author served in Vietnam, and his depiction of the country is the book's strongest point; but the improbable story which unfolds through the lovers' alternating voices seems slight in relation to its tragic themes.
Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier, Sceptre £6.99
More love in times of conflict, but it's the American Civil War which forms the backdrop to this big, leisurely and astonishingly assured first novel, a massive bestseller in the US. A wounded Confederate makes the long walk home to Cold Mountain and the woman he left behind, encountering numerous scrapes along the way. Meanwhile she's learning to run the farm she's inherited from her dead father, aided by an intrepid female friend. With its simple plot, epic scale, and strong, lingering prose it's magnificent entertainment, and soon to be filmed by Anthony Minghella.
Out Of Me, Fiona Shaw, Penguin £6.99
Twenty-year-old fundamentalist Christian student and thirty-something gay lecturer was an unlikely combination for romance, but it brought perfect happiness to Fiona Shaw, at first. Then, after the birth of their second child, she suddenly fell into severe postnatal depression which put her in hospital for months and nearly destroyed her life. Her harrowing book, which has inevitably been compared to Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar", describes the ordeal she went through, and explains how she rediscovered the will to live.
The Blindman's Hat, Bernard Cohen, Allen and Unwin £N/A
Vernon is an Australian working as a journalist in New York. While walking his dog Muffy (an important character in what follows) he meets Dida, and they spend so much time in bed together that his newspaper sacks him, then begins to intimidate him by printing mysterious ads and cryptic messages. Things get increasingly paranoid in an energetic caper interspersed with philosophical musings from Muffy. Great fun as long as you can put up with the frenetic and sometimes irritating voice of the narrator.
Never A Normal Man, Daniel Farson, HarperCollins £8.99
Reassured by his doctor that he was "not an alcoholic, just a drunk", Farson decided to write this autobiography, completed not long before his death. And what a life he had: friend of Somerset Maugham and Francis Bacon, Farson was a Picture Post photographer before becoming one of the most famous television interviewers of the early sixties. His loving evocation of the lost world of Soho and its gay culture makes his ebullient, touching memoir a classic chronicle of the period.
Enigma, Rezvani, Dedalus £8.99
You just know you're in for something pretty highbrow when a novel has for its epigraphs a quote from Wittgenstein and part of an Alban Berg score. Suspicions are further aroused when we learn that the disappearance of a celebrated writer and his family from their blood-stained yacht is to be investigated by people calling themselves "the Literary Expert" and "the Poet Criminologist". Crammed with references to classic fiction and written almost entirely in dialogue, Rezvani's philosophical detective story is an exploration of literature itself. Very brainy, and very talky.
People Like Us, Charles Jennings, Abacus £6.99
Openly admitting his class-envy at having been a mere middle-class kid from an average fee-paying school when he went to Oxford, Jennings decided to explore the world of the genuine twenty-four carat toff. Armed with Lady Celestria Noel's "Guide to the Season" he takes himself to Ascot, Henley and Queen Charlotte's Ball, where anyone can get in if they pay, but getting away with it is harder. This is the land of pearls and pinky rings, of silly names and vacuous conversations, every bit as ghastly and amusing as you'd expect.
The Warrior Queen, Barbara Else, Pan £5.99
Kate is forty one and a devoted super-mum who has an ambition to be "the only faithful wife of the twentieth century". It seems that her surgeon husband has a different attitude to marital fidelity however, and so Kate decides to get even. This lightweight domestic comedy from New Zealand is hardly a trail-blazing piece of fiction; rather it's an amiable addition to a well-worn genre. The enthusiastic jacket endorsement by Fay Weldon indicates the target audience, though this one's more "Butterflies" than "She-Devil".
Gay and After, Alan Sinfield, Serpent's Tail £12.99
Sinfield is an academic and a regular contributor to Gay Times, and in this wide-ranging, readable and provocative analysis of gay identity he questions, among other things, the supposed parallelism with racial minorities. In fact Sinfield is keen to undermine the homogenising "community" model in favour of something much more diverse, which he explores by looking at literature and popular culture from many countries, including a detailed discussion of artists such as Derek Jarman, Stephen Spender and Jean Genet.
Scribbling Women: Short Stories by 19th Century American Women, ed Elaine Showalter, Dent £14.99
In 1855 Nathaniel Hawthorne bemoaned the abundance of "scribbling women" on the American literary scene, and they get their revenge in this handsome collection. In addition to well-known names like Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin and Louisa May Alcott, there are a number of less familiar writers, some of them bestsellers in their day, and Frances Harper's "The Two Offers" is one of the earliest stories published by an African-American woman. A fine anthology, of which even Hawthorne might grudgingly have approved.
The God Of Small Things. Arundhati Roy, Flamingo £6.99
Last year's Booker winner is the kind of novel you either love or hate, and which side you fall depends largely on whether you find the style mesmerically beautiful or impenetrably over-written. "God Of Short Sentences" would be an equally appropriate title for Roy's rambling, episodic tale of an Indian family, in which every detail is Significant, and there's a lot of stuff. Like. This. Yes, there are some wonderful moments, and as a first novel it's commendably ambitious and certainly worth a look - but don't believe all the hype.
The Origins Of English Nonsense. Noel Malcolm, Fontana £7.99
Malcolm's book - part anthology, part scholarly study - unearths a previously overlooked poetic genre from the period between Shakespeare and Milton. This was an age of extraordinary playfulness and invention, when new words were freely coined and the nature of language itself was under scrutiny. The star among the nonsense poets he rehabilitates is John Taylor, whose output included a poem to be "pronounced with the accent of the grunting of a hogge", and another supposedly written in "Utopian". Not exactly Edward Lear, perhaps, but an intriguing find nevertheless.
Out Of Sheer Rage. Geoff Dyer, Abacus £6.99
Dyer wants to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, but there's always a reason for putting it off. He forgets to bring the Complete Poems on his travels, gets sidetracked by IKEA when he's meant to visit the great man's birthplace, and finds irritations everywhere. In the course of this very funny book we learn about Lawrence, and also about the sort of mundane practicalities which determine the course of any writer's working life. If you liked "Flaubert's Parrot" or de Botton's "How Proust Can Change Your Life" then don't miss out on this gem.
Don't Worry, Make Money. Richard Carlson, Hodder and Stoughton £7.99
The jacket blurb states Carlson's philosophy: "The more you give, the more you get back". Carlson himself credits this profundity to fellow self-help guru Deepak Chopra, which more or less sums up the recycled feel of his slickly vacuous addition to the genre of choice for business people who don't read much. Just tip generously and give to charity, it seems, and you'll soon be rich. Well, I've been trying it all week and still nothing's happening, but as Carlson also says, "You can make money or make excuses, but you can't do both".
Enigma, Rezvani, Dedalus £8.99
You just know you're in for something pretty highbrow when a novel has for its epigraphs a quote from Wittgenstein and part of an Alban Berg score. Suspicions are further aroused when we learn that the disappearance of a celebrated writer and his family from their blood-stained yacht is to be investigated by people calling themselves "the Literary Expert" and "the Poet Criminologist". Crammed with references to classic fiction and written almost entirely in dialogue, Rezvani's philosophical detective story is an exploration of literature itself. Very brainy, and very talky.
Longitude. Dava Sobel, Fourth Estate £5.99
Before the eighteenth century, sailors navigated by a mixture of sky-watching and guesswork, and the results were sometimes catastrophic. Spurred on by the promise of a huge cash prize, John Harrison proposed to solve the "longitude problem" by equipping ships with clocks of unprecedented accuracy and robustness, and the fruits of his decades of work still tick proudly in Greenwich. Sobel tells the story in an interesting and enjoyable little book, fairly low on technicalities and not without its purple moments, which has been a surprise bestseller.
Skin. Tobias Hill, Faber and Faber £6.99
Though not yet thirty, Hill has already established himself as a poet, and in his first prose publication his literary origins are apparent, this being a collection of stories in which the poet's eye for detail and love of fine verbal brushstrokes are very much to the fore. The long title story is about the death of a Japanese Yakuza gangster whose acid-burned body can only be identified by its tattoos, and the book as a whole is characterised by a striking sense of range, both geographical and emotional.
Marie. Madeleine Bourdouxhe, Bloomsbury £6.99
Originally titled "A la Recherche de Marie" in homage to Proust, and singled out for praise by Simone de Beauvoir in "The Second Sex", this was the last-published novel of a Belgian writer only now being rediscovered after half a century of neglect. The heroine is tired of a stifling, childless marriage; she meets a young boy while holidaying on the Cote d'Azur, and back in Paris they begin an affair. It's a simple, intense story, richly observed and sensuously told, and while not a masterpiece perhaps, it certainly deserves its belated resurrection.
The Trouble With Money. Ian Hamilton, Bloomsbury £12.99
Football is the subject of some of the essays and reviews collected here, and there's also a profile of Julie Christie and a trip on the channel tunnel, but it's literary criticism which forms the main concern of poet and biographer Hamilton. From Tennyson and Arnold to Larkin and Heaney it's the relationship between the writer's life and his work which recurs as a key point of interest, with a recollection of Stephen Spender and a potted biography of Salman Rushdie being among the highlights of an engrossing anthology.
The Art Forger's Handbook. Eric Hebborn, Cassell £12.99
The author died mysteriously in Rome shortly after his book was published there, and after years spent duping dealers and galleries with his Old Master imitations he wasn't short of enemies. His delightful book is a mixture of art history, chemistry and DIY, and it's impossible not to feel respect for a craftsman whose spiritual companions are Vasari and Cennini, but who just happened to have been born a few centuries after them. "Forge ahead" was his cheeky motto, and the gullibility of avaricious dealers ensured him a long and profitable career.
Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind. Guy Claxton, Fourth Estate £7.99
"Why intelligence increases when you think less", is the comforting subtitle of a book nestling somewhere between popular science and self-help, in which Claxton brings out a wealth of experimental studies in support of his theory that our best ideas are often ones we arrive at unconsciously. Western culture and the Cartesian world-view come in for a routine bashing but there are some fascinating surprises here, providing ammunition for those (myself among them) who regard staring out of the window as an essential part of a good day's work.
The Weight Of Water. Anita Shreve, Abacus £6.99
The ingredients are familiar from a number of recent novels: notorious true-life murder in a bleak part of the world; facts revealed through personal testimony; modern-day story unfolding in parallel. The murder was that of two Norwegian women on an island off New Hampshire in 1873, described here by the only witness, and her account is rediscovered by a journalist who investigates the story while her own marriage teeters. Fine ingredients, but this is a book which tries too hard; the historical chapters are unconvincing pastiche, the present-day story often mannered.
Over The Edge. Michael Bane, Indigo £7.99
Bane decided one day to make a list of "extreme sports", then tick them off one by one. They include a downhill mountain-bike race aptly named the Kamikaze, white-water rafting in Honduras, and the shark-friendly waters of Alcatraz, and although Bane gets mystical about "The Flow", we're not really talking spiritual journey here so much as mid-life crisis. Still, it's fun, and enthusiasts will be grateful for the book's practical info which might help them keep their own bill below the $30,000 which Bane blew on his epic spree.
Little Thing. Susan Wicks, Faber and Faber £9.99
Sarah is a lecturer at a French university with a young daughter by a departed lover. She's preparing to leave, and winds things up with her various friends and acquaintances while recalling scenes from the affair. A short story spread over a hundred and fifty pages, the book is dominated by the rarefied atmosphere of academic life, in which petty rivalries are a cause for agonising, and the narrator can still remember what she wrote on her UCCA form. All rather glum, though nicely written with a poet's delicate hand.
Choose The Sex Of Your Baby - The Natural Way. Hazel Chesterman-Phillips, Bloomsbury £6.99
The unnatural way costs a grand or two at a private clinic and has an eighty per cent success rate. Natural methods go back to the year dot, and have ranged from choosing your position carefully to having one testicle removed. The technique proposed here is not quite so drastic, but still calls for a degree of stoicism. It's all about sperm count and careful timing of conception, so be prepared for cold showers, jock-straps and temperature charts - and, of course, for possible surprises.
The Shopper's Guide To Organic Food. Lynda Brown. Fourth Estate £7.99
As well as being packed with details of where to buy and how much you should expect to pay, this well-organised book also has enough general info on all things organic to ensure it a long shelf-life. For starters, it explains to anxious, bewildered punters like me exactly what "organic" produce is - and what it isn't - and describes enough pesticides and nasty treatments to put anyone off their mass-produced spuds for ever. An easily-digestible feast of information, which no right-on kitchen should be without.
The Raven. Peter Landesman. Flamingo £6.99
The title refers to a pleasure boat which went down off the coast of Maine in 1941. Among the bodies that were washed up the only male was the captain, naked and tied to a keg, prompting rumours that a German U-Boat had abducted the rest. Landesman proposes a fictional solution in this expansive, intricately crafted first novel whose idiom is superior transatlantic creative writing of the prize-winning kind. If you're looking for another period-piece to pore over after "Cold Mountain" or "The Weight Of Water", you might like to give this one a try.
The Joys Of Complaining. Jasper Griegson. Robson £8.99
Griegson is one of those infuriating people who not only complain about everything, but actually get away with it. There was no coathook in a theatre's loo; he received a complimentary ticket by way of apology. He wrote to Sainsbury in code, but still got £15 out of them. He even complained to Camelot after missing the jackpot, hoping the aptly-named Mr. Rigg could swing it for him. The book's a testimony to the patience of customer-relations personnel everywhere, and I just hope that Griegson is happy with this review.
The Journal Of Antonio Montoya. Rick Collignon. Fourth Estate £6.99
I often think that magical realism should be available to authors only under strict licence, but Collignon easily earns his certificate with this delightful debut set in rural New Mexico. It starts with two people being killed by a cow, one of whom subsequently sits up in her grave in order to sort out childcare arrangements. Then the discovery of an old journal links past and present, the living and the dead, in a story which is warm, lyrical, and - unusually for the genre - admirably concise.
The Cost Of Letters, introduced by Alain de Botton. Waterstone's £2.00
"How much money do you think a writer needs to live on?" was the question asked of leading authors in a 1946 survey, and now the exercise has been repeated, with some prestigious respondents candidly revealing just how much (or how little) their books bring in. Aspiring scribblers take note: writing is no more secure a long-term career than rock music or football, and you'll always have to rely on traditional sidelines such as teaching or book reviewing to make ends meet. Not that I'm complaining, mind you.
Jack Maggs. Peter Carey. Faber and Faber £6.99
Returning from deportation in Australia, Maggs arrives in Victorian London and begins searching for young Henry Phipps. If this reminds you of Magwitch and Pip in "Great Expectations", it's meant to, for what we have here is a clever, accessible and hugely enjoyable homage to Dickens which casts a modern sensibility onto the period style. Maggs, employed as a footman, is recruited by novelist-hypnotist Tobias Oates as a suitable candidate for mesmerism and fictionalisation, and the gradual uncovering of Maggs's past is page-turning, thought provoking, and marvelously done.
As Though I Had Wings. Chet Baker. Indigo £6.99
Described as "The Lost Memoir", this tantalisingly brief autobiography recounts the legendary jazz trumpeter's career from his army days in post-war Germany to the high living of the early sixties. The names of Getz, Brubeck and Ella flash by; we get a slightly better taste of Parker and Mulligan, and of the drug scene for which Baker acquired an early and long-lasting enthusiasm. A wonderful life, but too bad that Baker never found a ghost writer who could have teased out from him all the missing details.
From The Holy Mountain. William Dalrymple. Flamingo £8.99
In 578AD a monk named John Moschos set out from Greece's Mount Athos on a spiritual journey through a Christian empire under threat. Dalrymple follows in his footsteps and finds the Byzantine legacy still clinging on along the ideological fault lines of the Eastern Mediterranean, amidst the Kurdish civil war, ruined Beirut, the troubled West Bank, and Egypt's fundamentalist enclaves. Well-stocked with bizarre characters and wry asides, Dalrymple's winning mix of travelogue and history is particularly strong on the latter, as he brings Moschos' lost world brilliantly to life.
Fear Of Mirrors. Tariq Ali. Arcadia £11.99
Though best known as a political journalist, Ali has also published two earlier novels, and this latest is an ambitious story spanning three generations which sets personal love and loss against the rise and fall of Communism in Germany. The book's strength is its intellectual rigour and sense of historical perspective, convincingly depicting the Eastern Bloc through the eyes of the faithful. But Ali's narration, switching uneasily between first and third person, remains frustratingly distant, and his lament for fallen idols is weighed down by its own didacticism.
Deeper. John Seabrook. Faber and Faber £6.99
Trouble with the Internet is that everything moves so damn fast. Seabrook's "odyssey in cyberspace" spans the era 1993-96, and it seems like an awfully long time ago. Then, it was all bulletin boards and telnet, the Web was still in its infancy, so on the techno side the book reads like an old computer mag. Of more enduring interest is Seabrook's experiences of online etiquette, or lack of it, as when he discovers what it's like to be "flamed", making this an amusing account of earlier times in the digital world.
The Dumb House. John Burnside. Vintage £5.99
Fife-based poet Burnside makes the move to prose seem effortless in this outstanding first novel, whose protagonist is fascinated by a Persian legend in which children were raised by mutes so as to discover if they would learn to speak. He wants to conduct experiments of his own, and becomes involved with a silent child, an equally strange mother, and a homeless girl who bears him twins. The results are horrific, but Burnside's spare plotting and elegant narration make this compelling, disturbing story hauntingly beautiful.
A Skin Diary. John Fuller. Vintage £5.99
Fuller has been equally at home in poetry and prose for many years - his Collected Poems were published recently, and this is his fifth novel. It's the diary of a Welsh farm girl in 1835, tracing her pregnancy from conception to birth; but unlike Burnside's book, the poetic legacy here is very evident. Rather than attempt pastiche, Fuller uses his own modern idiom, rich in imagery; so while he conveys a woman's voice very convincingly (to me at any rate), the linguistic sophistication detaches narration from period, with an effect which is lyrical and timeless.
Cyril Connolly: A Life. Jeremy Lewis. Pimlico £12.50
Precious, pug-faced Connolly was a gifted book reviewer who spent his life reminding everyone he could have been a genius, if only he'd tried harder. His lasting memorial is a handful of epigrams, most notably the plaintive, "Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising", and he remains an object of inscrutable fascination to biographers. Lewis's excellent, definitive account explains the appeal. Connolly is the under-achiever in us all; a reminder that mediocrity is the norm; a figure of near-tragic proportions - if only he'd tried harder.
The World Of Samuel Beckett, 1906-1946. Lois Gordon. Yale University Press £N/A
Sam's world belonged to quite a few other people too: civil war in Ireland, the Depression and the rise of Fascism. There's much speculation here - frankly futile - on how the world events and artistic movements of the day might have impinged on Beckett's mind; books he could have read, people he may have met. Of greater relevance and interest is Gordon's account of Beckett's wartime activities with the French Resistance and Red Cross, when he displayed qualities which amply merit the book's adulatory tone.
Major: A Political Life. Anthony Seldon. Phoenix £9.99
His schoolteachers seem to have forgotten him, his exam records remain closed "indefinitely", and his first three years after leaving school are still a complete mystery. And given the swiftness of his rise under Thatcher (who doesn't seem to have inquired very closely about his political views before alighting on her heir apparent), we soon reach Number Ten in this fascinating, sympathetic but not uncritical biography. The verdict? Not a complete failure, but nevertheless a Prime Minister who ranks, to put it delicately, in the "second quartile from the top".
The Tenth Circle Of Hell. Rezak Hukanovic. Abacus £6.99
No one can forget the sight of emaciated Muslims and Croats in Bosnia's concentration camps, and this memoir by one of the survivors confirms that parallels with Nazi atrocities are fully justified. A teacher is beaten by the former pupil who now guards him; a restaurant owner is made into "hamburger meat" for fun; and a man is taken for torture, only to find that the soldier waiting for him is his own son. This is a courageous, important book, and a truly harrowing read.
Like. Ali Smith. Virago £6.99
Smith follows her award-winning collection "Free Love" with a novel which is unusual in structure, and rich in observation. The first half is the story of single mother Amy and eight-year-old Kate, told from both points of view; then the book turns its attention to Ash, Amy's childhood girlfriend, whose devotion turned to obsession during student days. Each half works in different ways, but what holds it all together is a concern for the misunderstandings between generations, between friends, and between those on opposite sides of the Border.
Nights In The Big City. Joachim Schlor. Reaktion £16.95
Whether it's crowded bars, solitary strolling, or getting up to mischief, night in the city conjures up a host of alluring images, all of which Schlor investigates in this cultural history of nocturnal Berlin, Paris and London between 1840 and 1930. Time was, when you simply didn't go out at all after dark, otherwise the night watchman was liable to leave you locked out of your own home; but Schlor uses contemporary literature and archive material to trace the change in perception as modern night emerged.
Bad To The Bone. James Waddington. Dedalus £7.99
Strange goings-on in the cycling world. International races are being marred as competitors suffer fates including crucifixion, brain loss, and death by frog. Fiendish sports doctor Mikkel Fleischman may be involved, and cyclist Akil Saenz has to decide whether to accept the Faustian pact of Fleischman's training regime, in his bid to retain the Tour de France. Waddington's weird comedy is told in prose as sleek and stylish as the riders' lycra shorts, making this a striking debut from someone who is quite clearly a cycling fanatic.
Ewan McGregor: The Unauthorised Biography. Billy Adams £7.99
Among other crucial facts culled from the clippings, we learn that his earliest memory is of dropping a Fry's Chocolate Cream into the River Earn at the age of two, and that the five-year-old Ewan was "convincing" as Sheriff of Nottingham in a school play. Time will tell whether Trainspotting was really the artistic highpoint of a screen career which only began in 1993, but what does seem fairly certain is that when McGregor plays Obi-Wan Kenobi in the new Star Wars, his famous appendage will not be on display.
The Reader. Bernhard Schlink. Phoenix £6.99
Michael experiences every teenager's fantasy when he gets off with Frau Schmitz, and we get eighty pages of very readable, very conventional love-making from his adolescent viewpoint. But the plot-twist which reunites them is her trial as a former SS guard, and this is where her lack of characterisation and Michael's self-centred narration become repugnant, the book's only moral dilemma being whether he should tell the judge what he knows about her. A novel has to work pretty hard to make me sympathise with a war criminal, and this one doesn't.
On Queer Street. Hugh David. HarperCollins £8.99
This engrossing "social history of British homosexuality" begins with the trials of Oscar Wilde, and looks at the way in which gay stereotypes were formed or perpetuated by figures such as Wilde, Noel Coward and Kenneth Williams. The book's a mix of famous lives and ordinary men's recollections, and the author's credentials as literary biographer (his previous books include one on Stephen Spender) ensure that his treatment of E.M. Forster, the "Brideshead Generation" and the Auden circle will be of particular interest to anyone curious about their milieu.
Bestiary: Selected Stories. Julio Cortazar. Harvill £10.99
"House Taken Over" is about exactly that, though it isn't clear who or what is doing the taking over. The story was published in 1948 by admiring fellow-Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, whose own work it resembles. Cortazar's world, surreal and enticingly sinister, is one in which a man draws tiny rabbits from his throat, a delicate chocolate can contain a cockroach; and if these stories appeal, then look out too for his 1963 novel "Hopscotch", designed so that its chapters can be read in any order.
Diana, Princess Of Wales. Beatrix Campbell. The Women's Press £7.99
Doing a hatchet-job on the Royals these days is a bit like flogging a dead corgi, but Campbell leaps onto the bandwagon with this retelling, from a feminist perspective, of the story we all know. "How sexual politics shook the monarchy" is Campbell's subtitle, arguing that the Windsors brought disaster upon themselves by clinging to their regressive patriarchal values while the world moved on. The frequent repetitions suggest rushed work, but it's adequate if you want the whole squalid saga again in an intellectually credible package.
The House Of Sleep. Jonathan Coe. Penguin £6.99
The house was a university residence, now it's a clinic for sleep disorders, and a group of former students find their paths crossing there once more. As in "What A Carve Up!", Coe brings off a phenomenally clever plot with brilliant comic set-pieces while still making us care about his characters, here including a girl who can't tell if she's awake or dreaming, and an insomniac film critic in search of a lost movie. An intriguing and hugely entertaining novel from one of the best English writers of his generation.
Bleeding London. Geoff Nicholson. Indigo £5.99
Three strange characters come together by chance. Stuart is trying to walk every street in London, scoring them off in his A-Z one by one; Judy keeps maps of her own, marking the places where she's had sex; and Mick has come down from Sheffield in search of the men who raped his girlfriend. More than anything, Nicholson's ingenious, enthralling novel is about London itself, its anonymity and fascination, and his odd trio lead us through a plot laced with sex and violence which is darkly humorous and compulsively readable.
The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution. Conor Cruise O'Brien. Pimlico £12.50
The saintly reputation of America's third president (from whom Bill Clinton takes his middle name) has been challenged by several recent historians, uneasy about Jefferson's attitude towards slavery. O'Brien looks at the fifteen years preceding his presidency, which saw Jefferson in Paris - with his black mistress - on the eve of the bloody Revolution regarded initially as the natural successor to America's. O'Brien's expansive and penetrating study gives us a new, pragmatic Jefferson who could see the political usefulness of the occasional decapitation.
The Sea King's Daughter. George Mackay Brown. Saltire Society £13.95(CD), £8(cassette).
Brown's lyric drama is one of his later and less well-known works. It depicts the voyage in 1290 of seven-year-old Margaret, Maid of Norway, who was due to be crowned Queen of Scotland and become betrothed to the future Edward II of England, yet died at sea off Orkney. Brown's characteristic affinity for legend and the natural world is much in evidence as the drama unfolds through the stories, dreams and visions of the boat's passengers. Icelandic actress Bergljot Arnalds plays Margaret, with atmospheric music by Corrina Hewat.
The Land Of Green Plums. Herta Muller. Granta £9.99
The IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is bigger than the Booker, but doesn't get much press thanks to its favouring of literary fiction from languages other than English. This year's winner, now published here for the first time, is by a Romanian-born woman who has lived in Germany for the last ten years. It's the grim, fragmented story of a group of young students during the Ceausescu regime, with poetically recurring images taking the place of conventional plot, and with a tone dominated by the material and emotional deprivation which the regime created.
Pardon My French! Pocket French Slang Dictionary. Harrap £5.99
If you like looking up rude words in dictionaries then you'll love this, because they account for most of the entries. Safest slang to adopt is the school-kids' "javanais", formed by shoving "-av-" everywhere, but if you want to risk the more grown-up "argot des banlieues" then a code of exclamation marks indicates how much offence you're likely to cause. Also very popular is "verlan", the French answer to rhyming slang, in which syllables are reversed to make new words. Quite bizarre - or "zarbi", as they say in verlan.
Some Girls Do. Margaret Leroy. HarperCollins £6.99
Some do, but most don't - make the first move, that is. Despite decades of increasing equality, it's still the case that women - and men - are apt to revert to old fears and stereotypes when it comes to taking the sexual initiative. Men like the idea in principle but aren't always keen on it in practice, while women don't seem to realise that their meaningful looks often aren't quite as meaningful as they think. Lots of lessons for both sexes here, in a readable and well-researched guide to modern courtship.
Mr Clive & Mr Page. Neil Bartlett. Serpent's Tail £5.99
Mr Page works in a London department store in the 1920's, and his encounter with a man similar in age and appearance but not in social background launches him into a curious relationship which he recounts years later. Bartlett's strange and arresting novel is made particularly striking by the Gothic menage of Clive and his servant, and by a narrative which captures the repressions and thrills of the gay demimonde of the time. Most of all it's Page's voice, rather than the sparse plotting, which sustains Bartlett's haunting, atmospheric tale.
Journey To The Alcarria. Camilo Jose Cela. Granta £5.99
It was for innovative novels such as "The Hive" that Cela was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature nine years ago, but he has also written a number of travel books, of which this was his earliest and most successful. Describing a journey he made in 1946 - largely on foot - in the region northeast of Madrid, Cela adopts third-person narration so that his unnamed "traveller" becomes the hero of what reads almost like a picaresque novel, evoking a world which has now virtually disappeared.
Seahorses. Bidisha. Flamingo £6.99
Bidisha was born in 1978, is currently studying English at Oxford, and has already written articles for The Big Issue and NME. Her first novel steers thankfully clear of youth culture cliche, telling instead the story of reclusive composer Juliane, film-maker Will, and his liaison with a teenage girl. OK, the characters' bookshelves all sound like an Eng. Lit. reading list, and the narrative frequently gets smothered by its own excess of metaphor, but there's some sharp writing in here, a readable if slightly unfocussed tale, and signs of a real talent in the making.
Eigg: The Story Of An Island. Camille Dressler. Polygon £N/A
Last year's buy-out by the islanders themselves was a turning point in the history of Scottish land ownership. The story of the campaign occupies the concluding chapters of a book which traces the changing fortunes of the island and its population from earliest times. The descriptions of clan politics and the economics of crofting give an indication of the situation which prevailed in the Highlands and Islands as a whole, and the wealth of archive and oral material which has been gathered is fascinating.
Don't. Jenny Diski. Granta £9.99
Among the personalities discussed in these perceptive essays and reviews we have Howard Hughes, Madonna and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. There's a surreal encounter with Barbara Cartland (her thoughts on the Fourth Dimension), and an equally bizarre conference on "creativity", in which businessmen pay to hear the wisdom of a humourless tightrope artist. A recurring theme is the narcissism of so much contemporary writing, and Diski's wise advice to anyone contemplating self-revelation provides the title of her highly readable anthology.
The Silent Cry. Kenzaburo Oe. Serpent's Tail £6.99
Oe's own experiences often figure in his writing, particularly his guilt over the institutionalising of a brain-damaged son. This 1967 novel, regarded as his masterpiece and now reissued, has a narrator whose relationship with his wife is marred by the same trauma. Together with his brother they leave Tokyo and return to their childhood village where the family home is about to be sold off, and unresolved deaths from the past begin to haunt them. It's a dark and tragic story, beautifully told and pierced with brief flashes of humour.
The Perfect Vehicle. Melissa Holbrook Pierson. Granta £6.99
I don't know why, but somehow I hoped a "biking babe" (to use Motor Cycle News's description) might circumvent the usual cliches and make me realise there's more to motorcycling than speed, dirt, and loud noises. The bike is "an extension of yourself" Pierson explains (more than once), so no great revelations there; and although her guide to the history, culture and philosophy of two-wheeled things has its moments, it's hampered by a portentous prose style which may strike a chord with fellow enthusiasts, but is unlikely to win many converts.
Killing Rage. Eamon Collins. Granta £6.99
Collins was a young man with prospects, whose revolutionary ideals led him into the IRA in the seventies. Never a trigger-puller himself, he plotted and orchestrated bombings and shootings in Newry, ticking off targets with the enthusiasm of a trainspotter until he was arrested, informed on his accomplices, and walked free. Despite his own disclaimers, his motives in writing these riveting, troubling confessions remain complex; but his book is an important one, providing the fullest account to date of the inner workings of the IRA, and its ambivalent association with Sinn Fein.
Namedropper. Emma Forrest. Arrow £5.99
This entertaining bit of lightweight fun is told through the voice of sixteen-year-old Viva, who goes out with a succession of rock musicians, bonds with best friend Treena and agonises over Jewishness with her gay uncle Manny. A plot of sorts takes us to Brighton pier, Edinburgh and L.A., but it's Viva's teenage thoughts on life, love and film-stars that carry the whole thing along, providing plenty of comic observations to keep the pages turning. "Killing yourself is a pretty good way to get out of having to see someone after you've had sex with them," she advises.
The Queen Of Whale Cay. Kate Summerscale. Fourth Estate £5.99
With tattooed muscly arms and knife in pocket, Joe Carstairs could be called a man's man were it not for the fact she was a woman. Real name Marion, she drove ambulances in World War I, set up an all-woman chauffeur service, became a world-famous speedboat racer and took her millions to the Bahamas in 1934 to rule her own private island. Marlene Dietrich was one of her many lovers, but her greatest passion was for a thirteen inch doll. It's an amazing story, engagingly told in this delightful biography.
Bloomsbury Pie. Regina Marler. Virago £7.99
Such is the stratospheric reputation Virginia Woolf enjoys these days that it's easy to forget the doldrums her novels went through before being rescued by American feminist critics in the seventies. The rehabilitation may well have been helped, Marler wryly suggests, by Liz Taylor ranting "Who's Afraid Of..." in the 1966 movie of Edward Albee's play. Marler's fascinating study charts the fall and rise of Woolf, Vanessa Bell and other "Bloomsberries", and the growth of a heritage industry whose shrine is the spot on the Ouse where Virginia took her final dip in 1941.
Farewell Waltz. Milan Kundera. Faber and Faber £6.99
This is a new translation of the 1976 novel formerly known here as "The Farewell Party", and not, it has to be said, one of Kundera's best. A famous jazz trumpeter has a one night stand with a nurse at a health spa leaving her inconveniently pregnant, and the ensuing story, for all its ironic gestures, is a sex comedy more cruel than funny. The accusation of misogyny frequently levelled against Kundera seems particularly hard to rebut here, in a plodding farce which lacks the philosophical and emotional complexities of his finest work.
The Circuit. Jacquieline Davis. Penguin £5.99
On the face of it this looks like a female addition to the action-memoir genre perfected by the likes of Andy McNab. But the reality of her career in "close protection" is more low-key, with a bodyguard's greatest risk being death from boredom, and many of Davis's "covert operations" are surveillance jobs on shop employees with their hands in the till. Not many thrills then, but Davis offers a strangely seductive mix of soap opera and reportage, the highlights being the cheeky scams she uncovers even within such august institutions as the V and A.
Nice Girls Finish Last. Sparkle Hayter. No Exit £6.99
This is Hayter's second comic mystery featuring amateur gumshoe Robin Hudson, divorced thirty-something news reporter on a troubled American network. Now it's Hudson's gynaecologist who has wound up dead, and Hudson has to put dating problems to one side in order to follow a trail which leads her into the world of S and M sex clubs. As in the debut "What's A Girl Gotta Do?", Hayter comes up with an off-beat, infectiously funny page-turner, and one suspects that the formula still has a long way to go.
Manual 2000. John Elkington and Julia Hailes. Hodder and Stoughton £9.99
"Life choices for the future you want" is the subtitle for this user guide to the millennium, a handy book crammed with helpful info. It's on environmental issues that the authors are most at home, and anyone worried about global warming, food additives or genetic engineering should find everything they need to know here. Other topics range from E-mail to birth control, and if you want to go into the next century with an eco-aware lifestyle then this is certainly one for your non-fibreboard bookshelf.
Four Letters Of Love. Niall Williams. Picador £5.99
Williams's warm and likable first novel is set in his native Ireland and tells the parallel stories of Nicholas and Isabel. One is growing up with his unpredictable artist father and the other gets married to the wrong man, but fate brings them together at last. It's a sprawling, leisurely tale which wears its heart very much on its sleeve, but it's told with a convincing lyricism which seldom goes over the top, and if you like a good love story then you'll go through plenty of Kleenex over this one.
Beach Boy. Ardashir Vakil. £6.99
This is another atmospheric debut with a rich sense of place, but now we're in Bombay, where teenager Cyrus Readymoney is discovering the meaning of life against a backdrop of Hindi cinema, gorgeous food and tennis matches. The book is low on plot, but as each swift episode unfolds through Cyrus's narration we get a picture of the kid and his world which is funny and engaging. Vakil's novel made it to the Whitbread shortlist, and he's certainly a writer with a future.
The Winning Streak Mark II. Walter Goldsmith and David Clutterbuck. Orion £9.99
Mark One came out in 1983 and looked at a number of successful companies in order to try and see what they were doing right, suggesting the cutely named "simplexity" ("simple solutions to complex problems") as an important factor. The follow-up examines twenty four companies including Asda, Microsoft and IKEA, and the book is well-stocked with case studies and comments from chief execs, all of which will be of great interest to business students and budding Bill Gates's.
City Of Dreadful Delight. Judith R. Walkowitz. Virago £12.99
Partly borrowing its title from the "City of Dreadful Night" by nineteenth-century Scottish poet "B.V.", this book sets out to give a feminist account of "narratives of sexual danger in late-Victorian London", strongly influenced by Michel Foucault's ideas on sexuality and power. The Ripper murders provide one of the main case studies, the other being W.T. Stead's lurid expose of London prostitution in 1885. The theoretical framework might be a little daunting for general readers, but for specialists with post-structuralist leanings this is an important study.
Restoration London. Liza Picard. Phoenix £8.99
Most history books leave out the sort of things you'd really like to know. How did ordinary people speak; what did they eat; did they have birth control? Picard's wonderful book - the result of years of patient research - gives a picture of domestic life in London in the 1660's which tells us (among countless other facts) that "tea" was pronounced "tay", that breakfast could include oysters and wine, and that a pearly smile was maintained using sulphuric acid. As for sex, it seems that Restoration London sadly wasn't quite as wild as we'd like to think.
In The Memory Of The Forest. Charles T. Powers. Anchor £6.99
Powers was for many years a journalist working in the Warsaw bureau of the Los Angeles Times, and a small village in Poland forms the setting of his only novel, completed shortly before his untimely death. A young farmer investigates the unexplained murder of a friend in the nearby forest, and finds himself probing the uncomfortable past of a town which has colluded with Communism, and with the Holocaust. It's an absorbing mystery, finely told and touching on the great themes of retribution and forgiveness.
The Nerve: The 1988 Virago Book of Writing Women. ed. M. Hannan, P. Little, A. Badenoch, D. Taylor. Virago £9.99
Your average book-buying bloke probably wouldn't even pull this off the shelf, which is a shame because there's a lot in here for both sexes. This is a collection of good writing which happens to be by women; twelve poets and twelve prose writers chosen from over three thousand submissions. And although these are "new" writers who aren't widely known, just one is under thirty, and all have been working long enough to produce work which is mature, sensual and sometimes unsettling.
Bosom Buddies. Deborah McKinlay. HarperCollins £4.99
"Woman-land is full of magic kilos." It's that kind of book; all about shopping, calories and "not-going-well women" worrying about their "Man Status". In other words a piece of harmless lightweight fun for the bus ride to work which doesn't pretend otherwise. The only reason I mention it is that with all its bullet-point checklists and post-Bridget Jones angst, it's a book which already has the unworldly air of a period piece; the kind of kitsch that'll raise a smile of nostalgia in twenty years, when it's sitting on a charity-shop bookshelf.
Food, Sex and God. Michele Roberts. Virago £9.99
"What sort of things do you write about?" is the question which writers most commonly get asked, and Roberts' answer provides the title of this collection of her essays, lectures and reviews. She explains her own approach to the process of writing, and her discussions of other authors sparkle with sudden insights. Speaking of Anais Nin she says, "Damaged people are often unpleasant. They are too busy designing survival strategies to be nice". One gets the feeling from this warmly written collection that Roberts is a thoroughly undamaged person.
The Man With The Golden Arm. Nelson Algren. Rebel Inc £7.99
Yes, it was a film with Frank Sinatra playing low-lifer Frankie Machine; and this is the book on which the movie was based, a minor classic first published in 1949. Frankie deals cards in a backstreet gambling den in Chicago, but heroin addiction threatens the steadiness of his golden arm and he decides that playing the drums might be a way to a better life. Algren paints a picture of Frankie's world that's closer to Emile Zola than Irvine Welsh, and has a darkness and authenticity that Hollywood couldn't match.
The Star Factory. Ciaran Carson. Granta £6.99
This Belfast-born poet first branched into prose a couple of years ago with 'Last Night's Fun', a wonderful book of lyrical observation spun around the subject of Irish traditional music. He does a similar kind of thing here, though now it's his own past that provides the starting point; and if the result isn't quite as good then maybe it's because he lacks the unifying theme which previously helped anchor down his more florid descriptive passages. Even so, in its best moments Carson's richly observed picture of Belfast is truly captivating.
On History. Eric Hobsbawm. Abacus £8.99
Hobsbawm is one of Britain's most distinguished historians, and also one of the most readable. In this collection of essays and lectures he reflects on the nature of the historical process, discussing among other things the Marxist model - of which he has long been a proponent - and the postmodernist one, which he doesn't much like. And while he guides us through the theoretical niceties, he also deploys a wealth of historical examples and illustrations, making this a fascinating and highly pleasurable tour through a subject of whose profound importance we're left in no doubt.
Crowe's Requiem. Mike McCormack. Jonathan Cape £9.99
It opens with the narrator's image of himself as a wing-shorn angel descending to be born on earth, adequately setting the tone for this portentous rites-of-passage novel with a very strange twist indeed. Crowe grows up with his batty grandad in a village in Ireland, goes to university and falls in love, but then is suddenly found to have the ageing disease progeria; a truly tragic condition introduced here simply as a way of getting us to the end of the book, which for me couldn't come soon enough.
Making Votes Count. Martin Linton and Mary Southcott. Profile £5.99
Written by a pair of Labour Party researchers (and with a foreword by Robin Cook), this book looks at electoral systems and the various ways of implementing proportional representation, with the pros and cons backed up by a hefty assortment of data which students of politics should find very useful indeed. Being a statistics junkie myself, I particularly liked the appendix at the back which summarises the whole of this century's general election results and charts the slow rise in the number of women at Westminster.
Under House Arrest. Yevgeny Kharitonov. Serpent's Tail £8.99
Kharitonov was a dissident and a homosexual, and he dropped dead in a Moscow street in 1981 at the age of forty. His writings - which were circulated only in samizdat form until the end of the Brezhnev era - are a mixture of memoir, fiction and poetry, and this collection gives a compelling if somewhat fragmentary picture of a life on the outside during the Communist regime. The writing has a pared-down simplicity that adds to the sense of alienation, but Kharitonov's hedonistic existence wasn't without its moments of genuine warmth.
The Man With The Golden Arm. Nelson Algren. Rebel Inc £7.99
Yes, it was a film with Frank Sinatra playing low-lifer Frankie Machine; and this is the book on which the movie was based, a minor classic first published in 1949. Frankie deals cards in a backstreet gambling den in Chicago, but heroin addiction threatens the steadiness of his golden arm and he decides that playing the drums might be a way to a better life. Algren paints a picture of Frankie's world that's closer to Emile Zola than Irvine Welsh, and has a darkness and authenticity that Hollywood couldn't match.
Polly: The True Story Behind Whisky Galore. Roger Hutchinson. Mainstream £7.99
Another movie connection, this one unravelling the facts behind the grounding of the whisky-laden SS Politician in 1941, which led to Compton Mackenzie's best-selling novel and the equally popular Ealing comedy. Mackenzie lived nearby on Barra, and it's little wonder his imagination was captured by the rumours and tales which soon reached him, not to mention the salvaged whisky he was able to sample. Hutchinson tells a story which has all the charm of the fictional version, and offers a clearer view of the realities of island life in wartime.
The Three-Arched Bridge. Ismail Kadare. Harvill £9.99
Bridges form a potent symbol of Balkan history; the one on the Drina for Bosnian Ivo Andric, and as a link with Europe in this novel by one of Albania's most distinguished writers. It's 1377, and bridge builders are threatening to put the ferrymen out of their business. But their work is repeatedly wrecked, and legend has decreed that the bridge will stand only if a person is walled up within it. The sacrifice is made, and the completed bridge serves the advancing Ottoman Turks in Kadare's fable, written in Tirana in 1978.
Biting The Dust. Margaret Horsefield. Fourth Estate £6.99
Horsefield's entertaining cultural history tries to understand why so many women still seem to regard a footprint on the kitchen floor as a fate worse than death. One reason is mothers; another is a long tradition of stern injunctions placing cleanliness next to godliness, and making sure it was always the woman who did the cleaning. The "Song of the microbe", a piece of doggerel reproduced here from an "American Kitchen Magazine" of 1898, reminds housewives of the unseen enemy that's "here, there and everywhere".
Borderland. Anna Reid. phoenix £7.99
If Kiev only makes you think of chicken then maybe you ought to take a look at this absorbing history of the Ukraine, a country whose name means "borderland", and which has been fair game over the centuries for land-hungry neighbours on all sides. As Reid travels through the country she sees evidence of its long and troubled past, and she reminds us of the famous (or notorious) people the ill-defined Ukraine region has produced, including Jozef Korzeniowski (the Polish novelist Joseph Conrad) and the Czech Jan Ludvik Hoch, better known as Robert Maxwell.
Crocodile Soup. Julia Darling. Anchor £9.99
Gert works in the Egyptian section of a museum in the north of England; Eva works in the cafeteria. While Gert tries to work out how to turn her fascination with Eva into something more like a romance she looks back on her own past, remembering her early years with a troublesome mother and a dad who spent most of his time on an African crocodile farm. These memories form the bulk of the book, whose short self-contained episodes create a sharply observed, warmly humorous collage of growing up.
The Dedalus Book of French Horror. ed Terry Hale. Dedalus £9.99
The two dozen authors collected here span the nineteenth century, from La Harpe in the aftermath of the Revolution to Huysmans' fin de siècle decadence. Poe, Hoffmann and the English Gothic novel all fed the imagination of French fantasists, who frequently added a touch of their own Gallic wit to the heady brew of vampirism, ghostly gore and sexual misbehaving. Hale provides a useful scholarly introduction to this highly enjoyable selection of strange tales, most of which have never previously been translated.
In The Psychiatrist's Chair III. Anthony Clare. Chatto and Windus £12.99
The secret of Clare's success with his long-running radio interview series is the lingering hope that guests like Uri Geller, Martin Bell and Ann Widdecombe will crack open to reveal the galaxy of neuroses which have made them what they are. None does, but the transcripts are still highly revealing. Guests such as Stephen Fry and Paul Theroux are at the opposite extreme, apparently colluding in an exploration of their psyches which could all simply be another manifestation of professional myth-making.
The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali. Ian Gibson. Faber and Faber £14.99
What, one wonders, would Clare have made of Dali: an impotent, pathologically timid young man who once threw himself out of a first floor window to avoid a locust, yet re-invented himself as the art world's most extravagant showman? Gibson's outstanding, meticulously researched biography highlights the two great loves in Dali's life: his weird wife Gala; and the writer Federico Garcia Lorca, murdered by the Fascists Dali failed to oppose, and the "Andalusian dog" alluded to in Dali and Bunuel's famously stomach-churning film.
After The Watergaw. ed Robert Davidson. Scottish Cultural Press £5.95
A watergaw is a broken rainbow, and the eighty poets who've generously contributed work here in aid of Third World development certainly represent a broad if not totally complete spectrum of Scottish poetry today. Water is the unifying theme, and the contributions include a delightfully surreal vision of a beached Margaret Oliphant in an extract from Robert Crawford's "Impossibility" and a modern-day Moses on the Tay by Kathleen Jamie. Plenty here of what Stewart Conn calls the "underwater treasure you hold your breath and dive for".
The Actual. Saul Bellow. Penguin £5.99
Bellow's novella, remarkable for the sheer energy of its writing, shows that the octogenarian Nobel Laureate still has a freshness and wit which put most younger authors to shame. The story is narrated by Harry Trellman, a man of curious appearance whose association with a super-rich Jewish businessman called Adletsky brings him back into contact with his lost love from years ago. The many coincidences suggest a guiding hand; for Harry it's that of Adletsky, and for us it's Bellow's as he crafts this intricate, delectable jewel with masterly precision.
Waterloo Sunset. Ray Davies. Penguin £6.99
Davies's own song lyrics, from Kinks days and more recent years, form the springboard for his first collection of short stories. The connection between story and lyric (printed together) is often tangential, but there's a clear autobiographical streak in the recurring character of Les Mulligan, a middle-aged rock star who'd like to be appreciated for more than his early work. Davies brings a genuine sense of reflectiveness to the insincere cash-obsessed rock world he describes, and followers of his music will be eager to sample this creditable venture into prose.
the archy and mehitabel omnibus. Don Marquis. Faber and Faber £9.99
Archy and Mehitabel first saw the light of day in a New York newspaper column in the twenties, and their charm still endures. Archy is a cockroach who writes poetry by butting his head against a typewriter (he can't manage capitals or punctuation), his friend Mehitabel is an alley-cat who believes herself to be Cleopatra's reincarnation, and shrugs off misfortune with a "wotthehell wotthehell". Marquis died in 1937 but found literary immortality thanks to his duo of humorous free-verse philosophisers, reunited in this new omnibus edition.
The Bog People. P. V. Glob. Faber and Faber £12.99
No, not a book about the good workers at Armitage Shanks, but a classic study (first published in 1969) of those unfortunate Iron Age people who found themselves thrown into peat bogs after being unpleasantly killed, and whose preserved bodies are now gawped at by open-mouthed schoolkids in places such as the British Museum. Many specimens have been unearthed since the early nineteenth century and this book describes what's known about their lives and fates, illustrating the eerie extent of their preservation with numerous spooky photographs.
Steven Spielberg. Joseph McBride. Faber and Faber £12.99
In the disdain shown by many critics over the years towards this prolific and unashamedly populist director, McBride sees a parallel with a similar undervaluing of Capra and Hitchcock during their lifetimes. All Spielberg's would-be biographers are brushed off with the assurance that the master's own definitive version will appear in due course, but McBride has nevertheless managed to piece together a detailed and intriguing picture of Hollywood's greatest control freak, who made his first full-length feature film at the age of seventeen on a budget of less than $600.
Mary Cassatt: Painter Of Modern Women. Griselda Pollock. Thames and Hudson £7.95
Cassatt has been a victim of art historians' need to pigeonhole. Famous for her pictures of mothers and children, we think of her as a French Impressionist; but she was an American by birth, and Impressionism was only a phase in a long and stylistically varied career. Some of her early female portraits are surprisingly reminiscent of Vermeer; in later years she made Japanese-style prints. Pollock, a distinguished feminist art historian, emphasises the wider importance of this subtle, many-sided artist.
The Food We Eat. Joanna Blythman. Penguin £6.99
If you've ever wondered what scampi actually consists of, the answer in most cases is "breaded fish mince". Yummy. Blythman's award-winning guide lifts the lid on the food industry, telling us how to distinguish the mouth-watering from the stomach-churning before buying rather than after. It's an amazing feast of facts, from the problems of kangaroo meat to the glory of matured Parmesan, and anyone who cares about food will find it a great browse as well as an indispensable reference.
The Highland Geology Trail. John L. Roberts. Luath Press £4.99
This handy book is one to slip into the glove compartment or rucksack next time you're out and about in the north or west Highlands. There's a potted introduction to geology for those who don't know their schists from their arkose, and then the book consists of regional tours, pointing out the geological features of interest. Some of these are not for the foolhardy ("the cliffs are vertical, capped with steep and slippery slopes"), but there's also plenty for those who take a more leisurely approach to the outdoors.
The Law Of White Spaces. Giorgio Pressburger. Granta £6.99
"Everything is written in the white spaces between one letter and the next. The rest doesn't count." Pressburger is a Hungarian living in Italy, and his strange story sequence takes medical disorders as its unifying theme. You could call it a cross between Borges and Oliver Sacks, though it's not quite as good as either, the quality of the writing too often falling short of the author's lofty ideas about death and materialism. Even so, with its elliptical footnotes and detached tone, it's an original and strangely compelling achievement.
In My Room. Guillaume Dustan. Serpent's Tail £7.99
This thin slice of Parisian gay life carries an endorsement by Edmund White drawing comparison with Celine and Genet, but for all the explicitness of its sex scenes the lightness of tone somehow put me more in mind of La Cage Aux Folles. This is a happy, hedonistic little book about a guy who's HIV-positive and doesn't care, living for nightclubs and sex and describing his endless encounters in a who-puts-what-where manner (measurements included) which will either arouse or bore, depending on your preference.
The Tesseract. Alex Garland. Viking £9.99
The follow-up to Garland's bestselling debut "The Beach" is set in Manila, contrasting the luxurious and exotic against a backdrop of poverty, corruption and violence. In a hotel room an Englishman waits for a meeting with a gangster; there's blood on his bedsheets and the phone line is dead. Elsewhere a middle-class housewife puts her children to bed, while out on the streets a teenage kid is begging. Their three separate stories finally unite in the bravura finale of Garland's elegant and compulsively readable novel.
Waterstone's Guide To Scottish Books. ed Neil Johnstone. Waterstone's £3.99
Covering an A-Z of subjects ranging from cookery to politics, this handy guide gives details on the best Scottish books in print, complete with ISBN numbers so you can order them up at your nearest you-know-where. There are also articles on Scottish history and literature, a huge fiction and poetry section complete with potted biographies of writers and descriptions of their work, and listings on many artists and historical figures, making this a veritable mini-encyclopaedia of Scottish culture. Great for dipping and browsing, it's a brilliant piece of work at a bargain price.
The Fire People: A Collection of Contemporary Black British Poets. ed Lemn Sissay. Payback Press £9.99
Linton Kwesi Johnson and Jackie Kay are two of the best-known names represented here; but for the most part Sissay has aimed to feature poets who, although well established on the poetry circuit or club scene, haven't yet made the same breakthrough into the "mainstream". Joy Russell's "Fighting Juju" and Sissay's own "Colour Blind" are among the highlights of a fine anthology which illustrates very well the diversity of black poetry in Britain today.
On Scottish Ground. Kenneth White. Polygon £N/A
Scottish poet Kenneth White has pursued a distinguished career in France, to the extent that his work is better known over there than in his native country. He follows in the footsteps of wandering Scots such as George Buchanan or visionaries like Patrick Geddes, both of whom he admires, and in his essays White both condemns and to some degree displays the narrow preoccupation with "Scottishness" that is our national vice. The tone is highly personalised and sometimes becomes a rant, but White's erudition probes fascinating corners.
Truth: A History. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. Black Swan £6.99
What with post-modernism, cultural relativism and all the rest of it, dear old Truth has taken a severe bashing in recent decades. Researchers have tried to prove that "primitive" people use different logical systems from our own; others have claimed that the colours we see depend on how we name them. Is anything absolute? This illuminating "guide for the perplexed" answers in the affirmative, taking us on a thought-provoking tour through history, philosophy and anthropology, and showing that people with PhD's sometimes don't know when they're being taken for a ride.
A Kentish Lad. Frank Muir. Corgi £7.99
"Call my Bluff" presenter, rector of St Andrews University and for many years the voice of Cadbury's fruit and nut, the late Frank Muir's unique charm lives on in his delightful memoir. He left school at fourteen and went on to become a hugely successful scriptwriter and head of comedy for both BBC and LWT; but above all he was a raconteur whom few could match, and his life-story is told with the same taste for amusing anecdote that characterised "My Word!", his radio show that ran for thirty-four years.
Luminous Mysteries. John Holman. Granta £9.99
Holman was once a student of Raymond Carver, and his writing follows in the same tradition. His novel - a series of linked stories - is set in a black community in the American rural South, where the central character is a young man named Grim. Brought up by his much older sister and her husband, whose kids are all named after types of Chevrolet, Grim has built up his own vehicle business, and the interconnected chapters build up a picture of a small world in which people's paths can cross in many ways.
Beyond Sex and Romance? ed. Elaine Hutton. The Women's Press £8.99
The politics of contemporary lesbian fiction are examined in a series of essays discussing writers from May Sarton to Jeanette Winterson. Hutton's aim is to provide an overview of the responses made by novelists and short story writers to the increasingly diverse ways in which lesbians have come to define themselves, and her contributors choose a wide variety of topics, looking at fictional genres ranging from the utopian fantasy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman to the lesbian detective novels of Val McDermid.
Giving Up America. Pearl Abraham. Quartet £10
Abraham's follow-up to her debut "The Romance Reader" is the story of a marriage in crisis. Deena and Daniel, Jewish Americans from different traditions, start renovating their newly acquired dream home in a New York suburb after seven years together. However it soon becomes clear that it's not just the plasterwork that has its cracks, as Daniel begins to grow increasingly involved with a female work-mate, and Deena turns to her friends to help her cope with the strain. A familiar scenario, handled with a delicate touch in Abraham's thoughtful page-turner.
In Search Of The Divine Mother. Martin Goodman. Thorsons £9.99
The small German village of Thalheim attracts visitors from all over the world who come to see Mother Meera, a thirty eight year old Indian woman of few words but remarkable power. Goodman, a novelist struggling to come to terms with his own homosexuality, decided to write her life story. He encountered alternating periods of co-operation and disapproval, and his biography of Meera looks at the ambiguities, the frustrations and the rewards of the guru-disciple relationship he entered into.
A Scientific Romance. Ronald Wright. Anchor £6.99
Homage is paid to H. G. Wells's "The Time Machine" in this sprawling but enjoyable first novel. We're quickly asked to suspend belief as narrator David Lambert gets hold of Wells's "real" machine and leaps five hundred years into post-apocalypse Britain, from which vantage point he looks back on a love-triangle which consisted of a beautiful Egyptologist, a wayward musician, and David himself. The heady flow of ideas will satisfy devotees of the genre, while Lambert's unearthing of his personal history lends emotional resonance to the adventure.
Jennie Lee: A Life. Patricia Hollis. OUP £9.99
Fife-born miner's daughter Jennie Lee became MP for North Lanark in 1929, when she was still too young to vote. A fiery radical of considerable beauty, she was pursued by many men and became the wife of Nye Bevan, for whose political career she largely sacrificed her own. Even so, she still went on to become Britain's first Arts Minister under Harold Wilson, and created the Open University. A remarkable woman, and a fine biography charting her place within a socialist tradition which New Labour seems so eager to forget.
Three Dollars. Elliot Perlman. Faber and Faber £9.99
Bags of talent are on display in this Australian debut novel, though the plot is disappointingly conventional. Eddie grows up, marries his college sweetheart Tanya and acquires a kid and a career which he then loses, while the supposedly fascinating Amanda weaves in and out of view. Nothing at all remarkable there, but Perlman's dry wit and highly distinctive voice add an extra dimension of intelligence and readability to a storyline which has the forgivable but not particularly compelling feel of semi-autobiographical unburdening.
Remembering Well. Delys Sargeant and Anne Unkenstein. Allen & Unwin £N/A.
This book isn't for people who want to memorise the telephone directory (though it does tell you how it's done); it's for people who want to keep their grey matter as supple as they can, for as long as they can. Aimed particularly at the elderly, it deals with fears about Alzheimer's and ways of helping those who have it, and gives lots of helpful hints on how to keep memory ability in good shape in everyday life.
The Seven Madmen. Roberto Arlt. Serpent's Tail £9.99
Arlt was an Argentine journalist and inventor who died of a heart attack at the age of 42, and his intriguing novel, first published in 1929, follows the progress of a man who tries to repay a debt but discovers he has lost his soul. The nameless characters we meet among the brothels and slums of Buenos Aires are outcasts, revolutionaries and misfits; and the pervading sense of anguish and tragicomic absurdity, which was to prove influential in later Latin American fiction, can truly be termed Kafkaesque.
Personal Delivery. Duncan McLaren. Quartet £12
McLaren's a budding art critic with a girlfriend called Joanna, and his book is a diary contrasting the contemporary exhibitions he visits with the progress of his relationship. Some bits are genuinely witty, others frankly embarrassing, and self-promotion appears to be McLaren's main purpose - a craving he clearly shares with many of the artists he discusses. Hard to decode the levels of irony operating here, but most of the art-world people McLaren contacted seem merely to have found him a mildly irritating prat.
The Victorian World Picture. David Newsome. Fontana £9.99
This rich and absorbing study examines the Victorian mentality, particularly as seen in the writings of intellectuals such as Carlyle, George Eliot or Thomas Arnold. It confirms the image we have of an era dominated by moralistic sobriety, but also highlights the very real uncertainty the Victorians faced, with rapid industrialisation, recurring economic slumps and the threat of revolution weighing on the mind just as heavily as the religious doubts raised by Darwinism. Newsome gives a highly readable and formidably well researched window on the minds of our ancestors.
Redundant. Johnny Rodger. Dualchas £4.99
This latest title from one of Glasgow's most idiosyncratic small publishers is a fifty-page monologue in which a man receives a letter declaring him redundant, and there's an unpleasant mess in the close for him to deal with. More reminiscent of Beckett than Kelman, Rodger's loser is "the sort of soul who lets his morning porridge steam his blackheads"; an outsider with time to philosophise. A device for keeping disembodied heads in suspended animation is one way he could spend his redundancy money. Or maybe he'll just clean the close.
Glenn Gould. Peter F. Ostwald. Norton £N/A
Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was famous for his highly unorthodox interpretations of Bach, and for eccentricities which included an apparently incurable habit of singing along with his own concert performances. A manic hypochondriac, he wore overcoats in summer, and his over-use of prescription drugs contributed to his death at the age of fifty. The late Peter Ostwald was a psychiatrist and amateur musician who knew Gould personally, and in this touching biography he wonders whether Gould's bizarre manner, and his genius, may have been due to a form of autism.
Buchan Claik. Peter Buchan & David Toulmin. Gordon Wright £12.95
"The Saat an the Glaar o't" is the subtitle to this dictionary of North-East dialect, the saat provided by ex-fisherman Buchan and the glaar by ex-farm worker Toulmin. Drawing on their own long memories, the authors compiled a hoard of words, phrases and rhymes from their native Buchan area, and many of the entries digress into reminiscences about traditional agricultural practices or aspects of daily life. Their genial sense of humour also comes across very clearly in this delightful compendium.
Bordersnakes. James Crumley. Flamingo £6.99
I confess a special interest in this author, since I find myself so often shelved next to him. Crumley's hardboiled thrillers are set in his native Texas, and in this one he brings together detectives Sughrue and Milodragovich on a trail of revenge. Sughrue's after the men who tried to kill him and Milo's trying to recover his stolen inheritance. The link between the two crimes gradually emerges as the detectives make their hard-bitten way across state, fuelled by drugs and sex, and encountering plenty of violence en route.
John Hume. Paul Routledge. HarperCollins £8.99
Commenting on the Nobel award to Hume and Trimble, Seamus Heaney said that Hume is like the hedgehog who knows only one thing, but it's a very big thing. That big thing is Hume's commitment to a non-violent solution in Northern Ireland, which he has consistently advocated since his early days in the civil rights movement. Hume initially trained for the priesthood and was a French teacher before entering politics. Routledge's biography portrays a cultured man whose personal qualities have won respect even from opponents who cannot share his views.
The Reconstruction. Claudia Casper. Quartet £7
Margaret is a sculptor commissioned to make a museum reconstruction of "Lucy", a three-million-year-old hominid who may be an ancestor of modern humans. While Margaret toils she worries about her dreams, her teeth, and her failed marriage. Friends tell her she needs to get out a bit more, and I agree. Too much of the book goes on inside Margaret's head, where every detail becomes portentous through over-writing. Lucy, evolutionary theory and everything else become a romantic metaphor for Margaret's plight, and such solipsism leaves little room for the reader's sympathy.
The Nation's Favourite. Simon Garfield. Faber and Faber £9.99
Garfield spent a year observing the workings of Radio 1, sitting in on meetings, interviewing DJs and managers, and recording their version of the station's recent history. The regime of controller Matthew Bannister led to dinosaurs like DLT spectacularly taking their bruised egos elsewhere, an even bigger ego arriving in the shape of Chris Evans, and listeners fleeing by the millions. Garfield's interviews with the key players make compulsive reading; an orgy of back-biting, soul-searching and personal glorification, offset by the stoical bunker humour of John Peel.
Love And Peace With Melody Paradise. Martin Millar. I.M.P. £6.99
Millar, appearing as main protagonist in his own novel, gets involved with a New Age festival organised by his friend Melody Paradise. Amid the obligatory mud and rain, groups wheel in bearing names such as Universal Leyline Protectors and the Mushroom Clan, and this game with titles is the book's main joke. Everyone's really nice, they do crazy things like reading books to a depressed tree, but Millar's pleasingly ironic tone still isn't enough to save what's basically a long couple of weeks in a wet tent.
Mindreading. Sanjida O'Connell. Arrow £6.99
Round about the age of four, children start to acquire what's known as a "theory of mind"; the ability to imagine what other people might be thinking. People with autism never develop this crucial faculty, and spend their lives trying to deal with a world whose ways seem baffling to them. The question of whether chimpanzees can think about mental states is one in which the author has done much research. Her fascinating book explains the stepping stones spanning the intellectual divide, sometimes surprisingly narrow, between animals and ourselves.
Questioning The Millennium. Stephen Jay Gould. Vintage £6.99
The start of the twentieth century was celebrated the world over on January 1 1901; and according to some people the millennium took place on October 23 1996. Gould's fascinating and amusing look at millennial problems (one of which is the spelling of the word) explains that the confusion can be blamed on a monk called Dionysius Exiguus, who got Christ's birthday wrong when he invented the AD/BC system fifteen hundred years ago. He also forgot to include a year zero, which is why pedants will be saving their champagne until 2001.
Rovers Return. ed. Kevin Williamson. Rebel Inc. £8.99
The sequel to the bestselling "Children of Albion Rovers" is a similarly trendy collection of stories, though star players Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner are replaced this time by an influx of talent from England, Ireland and the US. Best of the bunch is James Meek with a strange and haunting tale of seal counting; longest item is a lightweight comedy by Gordon Legge set around the TV world. The anthology is to become an annual event, and submissions are welcome for the 1999 edition.
Elaine's World. Elaine C. Smith. B&W £7.99
Smith cites therapy as one reason why she created her autobiographical stage show "Elaine With Attitude"; her book draws on its material and will appeal to a similar audience. Prior familiarity with the Smith phenomenon is assumed: the seven series of "Rab C. Nesbitt" merit just fifteen pages while her three years with the Wildcat theatre company "belong in another book". What we get instead is a stream of consciousness in which multiple exclamation marks figure prominently, touching on feminism, chocolate, and Smith's ambitions to enter politics.
Sight Unseen. Bryan Magee and Martin Milligan. Phoenix £6.99
This enthralling book consists of letters between two philosophers, one of whom (the late Martin Milligan) was blind from the age of eighteen months. Magee questions whether his friend can share a sighted person's concept of reality; Milligan in return launches a spirited attack on "visionism", which he spent his life campaigning against. No tidy conclusion emerges (this is philosophy, after all), but we do learn a great deal about the enormously rich sensory world in which Milligan lived, worked and dreamed.
A Second Skin. ed Kirsty Dunseath. The Women's Press £7
Quite a few gems in this anthology, in which leading women authors write about clothes. Helen Dunmore casts her mind back to her mother's red velvet dress; Janice Galloway also remembers childhood in a deeply poignant piece about a brooch she gave her mother. The erotic aspect of dressing is explored by bell hooks (velvet again), and by A. L. Kennedy who wittily recalls a basque bought for the purposes of "seduction as theatre with as little time as possible spent off-stage".
The Road To Number 10. Alan Watkins. Duckworth £10
Watkins looks at the way in which Labour and Conservative leaders have been chosen during the last seventy years and reveals a story of power-broking and deal-making on both sides, the respective settings being clubs and country houses on one hand or the famous smoke-filled rooms on the other. Watkins' skills as a political columnist make his lively fusion of history, constitutional politics and sheer gossip highly entertaining as well as enormously informative.
I Could Read The Sky. Timothy O'Grady and Steve Pyke. Panther £6.99
Pyke's photographs and O'Grady's text counterpoint one another in this novel with pictures, telling the story of an Irishman in London looking back wistfully on his early life. Both the form and the subject invite comparison with W.G. Sebald's ground-breaking illustrated novel "The Emigrants", though here the prose style is very different, with rural Ireland being evoked through brief, intense and often highly lyrical fragments of recollection. The photographs further strengthen the sense of poignancy in this book about placelessness and the struggle to hold onto identity through memory.
Beyond The Tweed. Theodor Fontane. Libris £14.95
The nineteenth-century German novelist Theodor Fontane was a great admirer of Walter Scott, and Scott's former home of Abbotsford was a place of special pilgrimage for Fontane when he toured Scotland in 1858. Fontane had mixed feelings about what he found there, and his amiably written account of Scotland's most famous sights, richly stocked with anecdotal details, offers us a fascinating view of the country through foreign eyes at a time when the tourist industry with its attendant mythology was just beginning to take off.
Class Trip. Emmanuel Carrere. Quartet £6
When a young French schoolboy goes on a school ski trip his domineering, over-protective father forgets to drop off his luggage, plunging him into humiliation and loneliness. He's helped out by a slightly scary classmate and a possibly over-friendly ski instructor, but the boy's terrors begin to come true when a child goes missing from a neighbouring village. Carrere's thriller, which won France's Prix Femina, is a low key, slow moving affair - sometimes frustratingly so - but with its understated tensions and sparse plotting it's reminiscent of the films of Claude Chabrol.
Scottish Murder Stories. Molly Whittington-Egan. NWP £7.99
True-crime books are ten a penny but this one stands out for a curiously elaborate prose style which is perhaps explained by the fact that the author is a lawyer. The florid language is not entirely inappropriate since - with the exception of Bible John and the 1968 Garvie case - this is a book of "classic" crimes from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Among the dramatis personae is one William Henry Bury, whose claim to have been the real Jack the Ripper is supported, we are told, by a "decent propinquity".
Exterminate The Brutes. Sven Lindqvist. Granta £5.99
Linqvist travels across the Sahara with a laptop, writing about his journey and, more importantly, about the history of colonial oppression. The diary-like structure reinforces the book's passion and its force, as Lindqvist graphically describes the way in which Darwinian theory was subverted during the last century into a justification for racism and genocide, leaving a legacy of imperialist slaughter which Hitler eagerly inherited. The book's title comes from Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"; the severed heads which decorated Kurtz's house in that book were not a figment of Conrad's imagination.
Resentment. Gary Indiana. Quartet £10
This impressive novel has as its focus the trial in California of the Menendez brothers, who shot their rich parents and claimed sexual abuse as their defence. It features a journalist covering the trial and a range of other characters, some of them pretty weird, whose stories are woven into a narrative of the court case to create a sprawling black comedy satirising the American media's obsession with celebrity and scandal. The relentless prose is sometimes too verbose for its own good, but often dazzling in effect.
Kitchen Pharmacy. Rose Elliot and Carlo de Paoli. Orion £7.99
There are herbal remedies and healthy recipes here to deal with just about any ailment you can think of, drawn from many traditional sources. One part of the book lists the remedies and their uses, another lists the ailments and their cures; which one you browse depends on whether you're a cookery enthusiast or a hypochondriac. Not being much of either, I preferred gleaning gems of information such as Hildegard of Bingen's use of fennel seeds for treating her halitosis.
Ask The Dust. John Fante. Rebel Inc £6.99
Arturo Bandini is a struggling young writer in Los Angeles whose claim to fame is a short story called "The Little Dog Laughed" which he shows to everyone he can. He gets into a very curious love-hate relationship with a girl called Camilla, but his greatest concern is the literary success that forever eludes him. Fante's engagingly odd novel was first published in 1939 and influenced the work of Charles Bukowski; its ironic tone and bizarre touches are reminiscent of Gogol or Hamsun.
The Orphan Country. Lynn Abrams. John Donald £22.50
Abrams examines the treatment of children from Scotland's broken homes from 1845 to the present day. Thousands of children were "rescued" from urban slums, often to be sent to rural communities whose ways were completely alien to them, or else shipped abroad; and while some thrived, many others suffered neglect, exploitation and abuse. This important book draws together a mass of historical data in which the figures often speak for themselves. The archive photographs, the stark welfare reports, and above all the children's own words are particularly moving.
Damaged. Simon Conway. Canongate £9.99
Conway's macho thriller kicks off with the customary bit of mindless scene-setting violence, then embarks on a lengthy tale which takes Calum Bean, his cousin Seb, and Seb's "wildly unpredictable and absurdly beautiful half-sister" from the Highlands to Amsterdam and back via Northern Ireland, Iraq, Chechnya, and anywhere else where terrorism, drugs and illegality can find an outlet. Conway's an ex-soldier whose style has a ring of authenticity, but while his action passages should appeal to the intended audience, the numerous flashbacks and plot digressions may try their patience.
Scotland and Nationalism. Christopher Harvie. Routledge £15.99
It's more than twenty years since Harvie first ruffled feathers with his provocative and penetrating analysis of Scottish society and politics since 1707. The new edition brings the story up to date, and while the professor's later style is a bit more mellow, it's no less entertaining. Taking up Gramsci's idea of using the history of intellectuals as a key to understanding the growth of nationalist movements, Harvie pays particular attention to the literary tradition in Scotland, as he unravels the transformation of nationalism from romantic fantasy to political reality.
Under The Hammer: Edward I and Scotland, 1286-1307. Fiona Watson. Tuckwell £14.99
Nationalism of an earlier kind here, as Watson investigates the reasons for King Edward's failure to do to Scotland what he managed to do for Wales. Watson's analysis of the early years of the Wars of Independence goes beyond the political intrigues to look at such basic problems as the raising and provisioning of the armies, and in this way she sheds considerable light on the social conditions of the time. Not quite as gripping as "Braveheart" perhaps, but a great deal more useful.
New Writing Scotland. Donny O'Rourke and Kathleen Jamie (ed.). Association for Scottish Literary Studies £8.95
This annual anthology of new poetry and prose by Scottish writers is now in its sixteenth year and already taking submissions for the next edition, in case you fancy your chances. The fifty or so contributors this time round include such veterans as Maurice Lindsay and William Neill, among a healthy mix of well established and less familiar names. Poetry is better served than prose on the whole; among the latter, Robert Crawford's touching reminiscence of his father is one of the highlights.
Wisdom, Madness and Folly. R.D. Laing. Canongate Classics £5.99
R. D. Laing was one of the most controversial figures in post-war psychiatry, achieving cult status thanks not only to his advocacy of a more humane approach to therapy, but also because of his forays into psychedelic counter-culture. In this memoir of his first thirty years, first published in 1985, Laing describes his formative experiences; his middle-class Presbyterian upbringing in pre-war Glasgow, clinical work in the army and at a mental hospital, and theoretical interests which he brought together in his first book, "The Divided Self".
A History Book For Scots. Walter Bower. Mercat £N/A
Bower compiled his Latin "Scotichronicon" in the 1440s, telling Scotland's story from legendary beginnings down to the death of James I. Its importance has long been recognised by historians, but it has waited five centuries to be completely translated in Professor Donald Watt's critical edition. If you don't fancy all nine volumes then try this wonderful selection of highlights, in which Joan of Arc and even Robin Hood appear alongside the kings, saints and natural wonders. A boon for Scrabble enthusiasts is the mysterious disease called "qwhew".
The Safety Of Objects. A. M. Homes. Anchor £6.99
Suburban America is seen in a very strange light in these witty and enthralling stories. A married couple, free of the kids for a weekend, decide to give crack a try; elsewhere a man is sent berserk by a contest in a shopping mall. Homes adds a surreal but totally believable twist to everyday situations, and the weirdest and funniest item from her fine collection is one concerning a kid's affair with his sister's Barbie doll, in which we finally discover the truth about Ken.
The Scots Kitchen. F. Marian McNeill. Mercat £N/A
McNeill had a colourful life as suffragette, traveller and journalist, and she wrote a huge study of Scottish customs called "The Silver Bough". But it was this classic social history of food, first published in 1929, that made her famous. Drawing on literary sources and her own researches throughout Scotland, McNeill describes culinary methods, typical meals and Scots hospitality over the centuries, and provides recipes for everything from inky-pinky to crappit heids, deer horns to Edinburgh rock.
Brass Monkeys. Mark B. Cohen. Coronet £5.99
Politics and the media provide the easy targets in a comic novel unencumbered by subtlety or literary pretension, which follows the fortunes of a chaotic new government rushed into power in the wake of the complete annihilation of the Cabinet in a disaster. It's all harmless, farcical fun, featuring newspaper wars, ministerial sex scandals, and people with names like Candida Blitz and Victor Quistling. The Tom Sharpe tradition is what it aspires to, though it lacks his gift of brevity.
How To Defend Yourself Against Alien Abduction. Ann Druffel. Piatkus £8.99
Looking for the ideal Christmas present for a paranoid friend? Try this little gem. The book's upbeat message is that abduction is something we can all avoid if we take the right steps. For example, when confronted by extra-terrestrials who completely paralyse your muscles, try to "maintain patience". Praying is also believed to work; but even if it doesn't, it's probably a good idea. But don't worry, herbs such as yarrow will help keep your life alien-free. Believe me, I've tried it and it works!
Born To Rebel. Frank J. Sulloway. Abacus £9.99
Sulloway has spent twenty years investigating the role of birth order on personality. He's analysed the lives of thousands of historical figures involved in scientific and social upheavals such as Darwinism and the Protestant Reformation, and concludes that first-borns tend to be more conforming while later-borns are more inclined to rebel. Sulloway's account of his revolutionary findings is often quite technical, but this is certainly one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking books I've come across in a long time.
Great Glasgow Stories. John Burrowes. Mainstream £9.99
The book kicks off with the sad story of Alexander McArthur, who became famous in the thirties for his ghost-written novel of Gorbals gang wars "No Mean City" but ended his life with an overdose of disinfectant. The radical politician John Maclean, Barras founder Maggie McIver and Billy Connolly are some of the other greats remembered in this couthy collection of Glasgow legends, which also features events such as the hurricane of 1968, the demise of the trams, and Scotland's last outbreak of bubonic plague, which was in 1900.
Dancing Lessons For The Advanced In Age. Bohumil Hrabal. Harvill £6.99
Hrabal's novel "I Served The King Of England" would be high on my desert-island list; this earlier book isn't as good, but still worth a look. Its unstoppably garrulous narrator describes his years as cobbler, soldier and lover, in a single hundred-page sentence. Hrabal's comic, slightly surreal works were all banned by the Czech authorities in 1968, which only added to their cult status. He died last year at the age of eighty three, after falling out of a window while feeding pigeons.
Arkansas. David Leavitt. Abacus £6.99
Leavitt got into trouble a few years back with his novel "While England Sleeps", partly based on Stephen Spender, who sued. The incident prompts the first and best of the three novellas here, a fiction disguised as fact in which Leavitt supposedly writes essays for male UCLA students in exchange for sexual favours. Such game-playing can easily become narcissistic, but Leavitt gets away with it in a genuinely funny story with subtle moral undertones. Romantic mishaps in Italy and friendship with an AIDS patient make up an interesting trio.
Passionate Paint: The Art Of Lys Hansen. ed. Giles Sutherland. Mainstream £18.50
Born in Falkirk in 1936, Hansen has long been recognised as one of Scotland's foremost contemporary painters. She is also a European artist, thanks to her Danish ancestry and the extended periods she has spent in Berlin. Her vigorous style echoes the Expressionist tradition, and the human body is her main subject. This richly illustrated book, edited by the artist's son, includes critical essays from ten contributors, and ends with a revealing interview in which the artist describes the personal influences behind her work.
Name The Baby. Mark Cirino. Phoenix £6.99
This American writer's debut novel carries an endorsement from Alan Warner and bears a superficial resemblance to "Morvern Callar", but it's nowhere near as good. The 21-year-old narrator's girlfriend has shot herself, and he goes on a binge of clubs, booze and mushrooms to get over it. But unlike Warner's eerie detachment, here it's self analysis and self pity all the way, and whether you can get on with this book depends on how long you can stand the whining.
The Love Parade. Matthew Branton. Penguin £6.99
Another young male debut, this time about people who come from a part of Manchester where everyone speaks American. To begin with, I loved it. Ex-member of a defunct boy band is washed up at 24; he pitches a film script at his US publicist and is told to get lost. Cut to Cannes, where he teams up with glamorous twins and embarks on a novelisation of the idea. Then it all gets rather boring. Pity, because Branton's writing really sparkles, and if he can come up with a snappier plot next time I'll be first in line to read it.
Love Undetectable. Andrew Sullivan. Chatto and Windus £12.99
Sullivan's first book, "Virtually Normal", generated controversy with its neo-conservative rethinking of gay politics. This new book is equally controversial, but its universal themes and more personalised tone will appeal to a wider audience. In the first of three absorbing essays, Sullivan envisions the end of the AIDS "plague" through new anti-viral drugs. He then looks at theories about the origins of homosexuality, and is unfashionably favourable towards Freud. Finally he extols the values of friendship, drawing on Aristotle, Montaigne, and above all his own experiences.
Town and Country. Anthony Barnett and Roger Scruton (eds). Jonathan Cape £12.99
The editors, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, formed an unlikely alliance in 1995 by convening a discussion group called the Town and Country Forum in order to address the growing rift between rural and urban attitudes seen in issues such as road development, farming practises and hunting. This valuable book's twenty eight contributors span an equally wide range, including George Monbiot on conservation, John Gummer on the demand for new housing, and composer David Matthews looking at the countryside in music.
Voices From The Great War. Peter Vansittart. Pimlico £10
In an unusual and kaleidoscopic anthology, brief extracts from the contemporary comments of writers, politicians, soldiers and newspaper reporters are assembled into a chronology of the First World War, giving a vivid impression of courage, chaos and futility. the story takes us from Andre Maurois' wife pouting indifferently at news of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination, to Marshal Foch saying prophetically at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, "This is not peace, it is an armistice for twenty years."
Jack Nicholson. Peter Thompson. Mainstream £9.99
Nicholson's first job in Hollywood was opening fan mail for cartoon characters Tom and Jerry. "Easy Rider" - the film that made him famous - was his nineteenth, having been preceded by a string of low-budget B movies. This unauthorised American biography describes Jack's rise to stardom, dishing a fair amount of dirt along the way, and confirming that the demonic on-screen presence isn't just acting. The scenes at Beverly Hills' Mulholland Drive, where Jack and Marlon are next door neighbours, neatly sum up the surreal crassness of Hollywood life.
What The Twilight Says. Derek Walcott. Faber and Faber £9.99
Walcott's poetry draws equally on the Caribbean and European literary traditions, and his long career was crowned by the 1992 Nobel Prize. The elegant and incisive critical essays collected here span more than twenty years, and reflect the dual concerns in Walcott's work. Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes and Les Murray are among the poets under discussion, while the prose writers include fellow-Caribbeans C. L. R. James, Patrick Chamoiseau and V. S. Naipaul - the latter being praised by Walcott for his style, but condemned for his prejudices.
In Search Of An Impotent Man. Gaby Hauptmann. Virago £9.99
Tired of being pursued by priapic middle-aged businessmen, thirty-five year-old insurance agent Carmen Legg places a lonely hearts ad in search of something different. It's a cute idea, on the strength of which the novel became a bestseller in Germany, but the novel itself offers little beyond an episodic succession of flaccid applicants, some of whom think the idea is that Carmen will cure them. None of it's very funny, or sexy, and in this case smaller would certainly have been better.
Baby Love. Louisa Young. Flamingo £6.99
Angie's battling for custody of her sister's baby, safely delivered (bit of a miracle, really) after pregnant sister flew off a motorbike and died. Angie's also involved, thanks to some impenetrable coincidences, with various blokes who may be crooks posing as policemen, or vice versa. Oh, and she's a belly dancer. There are an awful lot of sentences beginning with "so", a plot that's made up as we go along, and a few slabs of belly dancing history to spice up this chatty, totally implausible bit of harmless fun.
Your Father And I. Isabella G. MacLean. Tuckwell £7.99
Isabella MacLean was born in Aberdeen in 1888 and recorded her family history for her son when she was in her seventies. The story goes back to the founding of the Free Church in the Disruption of 1843, and religion was a major factor in Isabella's life. She married a Free Church minister - whose complete devotion to his calling she found sometimes trying - and her recollections give a detailed picture of a very distinctive sector of Scottish life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Triumph Tree. ed Thomas Owen Clancy. Canongate £9.99
Anthologies of early Scottish literature usually start with Barbour's "Bruce", but the story goes back much further. Aneirin was a sixth-century bard of The Welsh-speaking Britons who defended Cumbria and southern Scotland against the invading Angles, and a new translation of his famous poem "Y Gododdin" is the first item in a ground-breaking collection of the most important Scottish poetry before 1350. Latin, Gaelic, Old English and Norse are the other works' original languages, and the book's introduction helpfully unravels the multi-cultural complexities of mediaeval Scotland.
Like this? Try Walter Bower, "A History Book For Scots".
The Pied Piper's Poison. Christopher Wallace. Flamingo £7.99
A young Scottish army doctor is sent to a Polish refugee camp in the winter of 1946. People are dying of a mysterious disease, and children are strangely absent. The story is intercut with excerpts from a colleague's paper on the Pied Piper legend which itself jumps between academic prose and a novelistic recreation of events in the seventeenth century. Some common resolution to all this is suggested but never really delivered in a novel whose various strands sit uneasily alongside one another.
Like this? Try Julian Rathbone, "Brandenburg Concerto"
The City of Light. Jacob D'Ancona, translated by David Selbourne. Abacus £9.99
The story of this lost thirteenth century manuscript reads like something out of Umberto Eco. Secretly held by an anonymous Italian owner, D'Ancona's account of his journey to China was shown to David Selbourne on condition that its whereabouts remain undisclosed, leading some scholars to dispute its authenticity. Whatever the facts, the book offers a fascinating and lively picture of China in the age of Kublai Khan, written by a scholarly Jewish merchant who began his travels a year ahead of Marco Polo.
Like this? Try Frances Wood, "Did Marco Polo go to China?"
The Intuitionist. Colson Whitehead. Granta £9.99
This is a novel about lift inspectors. There are two kinds: the Empiricists who do everything according to rule, and the Intuitionists who take a more inspirational approach. Lila Mae is the latter, and being female and black further singles her out within the Elevator Guild, so that when a lift fails she suspects a conspiracy to discredit her. The ideas are great, but they're poorly handled. The slenderest of plots and a narrative that's slow, humourless and over-written makes this a book that feels permanently stuck between floors.
Like this? Try Lucy Ferriss, "The Misconceiver".
The Thieves' Opera. Lucy Moore. Penguin £7.99
Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild were two of the most notorious criminals in eighteenth century London. One was a house-breaker with a talent for escape, the other feigned respectability while controlling a "Corporation of Thieves". The "Beggars' Opera" was based on them, and their lives were fictionalised by Fielding, Defoe and many others. In telling their story Moore explores crime and punishment, social attitudes and daily life in the age of Dick Turpin and Moll Flanders - everything from the cost of a wig to the packaging of contraceptives.
Like this? Try Roy Porter, "London: A Social History".
Fire Under The Snow. Palden Gyatso. Harvill £6.99
The author, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, endured thirty-three years of incarceration in Chinese-controlled prisons where he was frequently tortured in an effort to "reform" him. His book describes Tibetan life before the Chinese invasion, the madness of the Cultural Revolution, and his sufferings in prison where the most trivial offences could lead to death. Gyatso escaped in 1992 with a bag full of torture instruments and testified before the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. He tells his story here with humility and great strength.
**Rezak Hukanovic, "The Tenth Circle Of Hell".
The Great Bagarozy. Helmut Krausser. Dedalus £7.99
The well-worn scenario of psychiatrist falling in love with patient is given an unusual twist in this shaggy-dog story from Germany, in which the female doctor's client is a man who believes himself to have been Maria Callas's poodle, and the guiding force behind the great opera singer's career. We get a potted dog's-eye biography of the diva, and there are one or two other plot strands along the way, but the real point of the book is the unexpected punchline at the end.
**James Waddington, "Bad To The Bone".
Living At The End Of The World. Marina Benjamin. Picador £6.99
"Millennium" looks set to become the most boring word of the year, but this is one of the more intelligent additions to millennial literature. Benjamin ruminates on apocalyptic cults from Biblical times to the present day, showing how the Book of Revelation has been used to fix Armageddon in just about any year you care to name. Joanna Southcott, who at the age of sixty five declared herself pregnant with the Messiah, is one of the more endearing figures among a host of eccentrics, charlatans and egotists.
**Stephen Jay Gould, "Questioning The Millennium".
The Magician's Assistant. Ann Patchett. Fourth Estate £6.99
The magician called himself Parsifal, and after his gay partner died his devoted long-time assistant Sabine was married to him for a year. Following Parsifal's own death she discovers he lied when he said he had no living relatives, and Sabine goes to Nebraska to find out why he became estranged from a dysfunctional family he never spoke about. Out of such odd situations and strange characters Patchett fashions a beguiling, heart-warming story which was shortlisted for last year's Orange Prize.
**Anne Tyler, "The Accidental Tourist".
Nationalism. Ernest Gellner. Phoenix £6.99
Gellner grew up in pre-war Prague, and ethnically he could call himself Czech, German or Jewish. The experience taught him that nationality is not a natural phenomenon but an act of personal choice, and he devoted much of his academic career to the study of nationalism, forming a milder version of Kedourie's extreme theory that the doctrine was a nineteenth century invention. Gellner's final distillation of his views was this short book, dry in tone but rich in ideas, which he completed not long before his death.
**Christopher Harvie, "Scotland and Nationalism".
Reach. Jake Poller. Jonathan Cape £8.99
The narrator goes by the name of Miff, has dreams of being a great writer, and works in a Covent Garden bookshop. The scenario is one that readily lends itself to humour, and Poller has some fun at the expense of Miff's colleagues, all of whom are literary wannabes of one kind or another. But Miff's too much of a smarty-pants for his own good; his fantasies of fame, and the tacky soft-porn liaisons that form most of the plot, lack a redeeming sense of irony.
**John Fante, "Ask The Dust".
Timber! Affleck Gray. Tuckwell Press £7.99
The wartime efforts of the Women's Land Army are well known, but the Women's Timber Corps did an equally important job, living in rough conditions and felling trees to produce everything from pit props to gun-stocks. The late Affleck Gray was a forester who supervised their work in Scotland, and later campaigned to have them represented at Armistice services. He collected their reminiscences, poems and pictures, and presents them here as a tribute to the "Lumber Jills".
**Mavis Williams, "Lumber Jill".
Colours Of Hope And Promise. Brid Cullen. Wild Goose £N/A
Nearly three thousand Scots have HIV, but the epidemic's failure to live up to worst fears led to a cut in funding at a time when improved treatments made long-term support more necessary than ever. After Brid Cullen's project for Edinburgh drug users closed in 1996 she began recording the experiences of Scottish people affected by HIV. Some have lost friends or family, others are living with the disease; all have had to find strength in the face of social stigma, and their moving accounts offer great hope.
**Mark Matousek, "Sex, Death, Enlightenment".
Karoo. Steve Tesich. Vintage £6.99
Wealthy, cynical Karoo is a "script doctor" who mends other people's screenplays by removing surplus complications. His own life becomes complicated when he gets involved with a bit-part actress doomed to be spliced from a great director's final movie, and he decides to ruin the film in order to save her. Brilliantly funny in its early chapters, but also very wise, the virtuosic irony turns to bitterness as a tragic story develops. This happens at the expense of the writing, but the sketchiness is understandable. Tesich - an Oscar-winning screenwriter - died shortly after completing this heart-felt valediction.
**Italo Svevo, "Confessions of Zeno".
Selected Poems. Langston Hughes. Serpent's Tail £7.99
Working as a waiter in a Washington hotel in the 1920s, Hughes left some poems beside the plate of respected poet Vachel Lindsay, and the newspapers reported how the impressed Lindsay had discovered a "Negro busboy poet". But Hughes was already a university graduate who had published some verse, and by the time of his death in 1967 he was a national figure. This selection includes all his best known works, the most famous being "Harlem" from 1951, which considers the consequences of racial inequality. "What happens to a dream deferred? ...does it explode?"
**Langston Hughes, "The Big Sea: An Autobiography".
Undiscovered Country. Christina Koning. Penguin £6.99
Venezuela, where the author spent part of her own childhood, provides the setting for this low-key novel of relationships and tensions among ex-pats in the 1950s. Vivienne is an English schoolteacher and the third wife of philandering Texan oilman Jack. While he's indulging in some extra-curricular activities, Vivienne concerns herself with a struggling pupil and his Dutch father. Set against a background of social claustrophobia and snide back-biting, much of the action is seen through the innocent but comprehending eyes of Vivienne's daughter Antonia.
**Henry James, "What Maisie Knew".
The Scottish Electorate. A. Brown, D. McCrone, L. Paterson, P. Surridge. Macmillan £N/A
Written by a team of university sociologists and political scientists, this valuable little book draws on recent research to look at the Scottish political scene since the 1997 general election. It offers a quick introduction to the distinctive nature of the Scottish parties and goes on to look at issues such as patterns of voting among different social groups, expectations for the Scottish Parliament and the perception of "Scottishness", backing it all up with masses of useful survey data.
**M. Linton and M. Southcott, "Making Votes Count".
About This Life. Barry Lopez. Harvill £12
Asked to advise a young girl hoping to be a writer, Lopez said: "Read. Find out what you truly believe. Get away from the familiar". It's clearly the path he's followed himself, and his beautifully written essays take us to places as far-flung as Japan, Alaska and the Galapagos Islands. A landscape photographer before he became a writer, Lopez passionately observes both the natural world and the nuts and bolts of human activity. His style is a mixture of the pioneering and the poetic; his sense of curiosity appears inexhaustible.
**Michael Viney, "A Year's Turning".
Wasted. Marya Hornbacher. Flamingo £6.99
Hornbacher was born in 1974 and by her own reckoning her childhood ended at the age of eight when she first became bulimic. Food served only as a form of emotional currency, and the years that followed were filled with sex, drugs and self-destructive behaviour in a hectic search for identity that very nearly killed her. Her harrowing but highly accomplished memoir draws extensively on medical and psychological research, which Hornbacher uses in an effort to try and understand the eating disorder that consumed her life and left her feeling old at 23.
**Sylvia Plath, "The Bell Jar"
Praying To The Aliens. Gary Numan with Steve Malins. Andre Deutsch £6.99
Numan's remembered for two classic hits and a stage persona variously perceived as robotic, mildly fascistic or plain naff. His critical rehabilitation began with a tribute album last year and continues with this unexpectedly intriguing autobiography, in which Numan exposes the shoddy behaviour of former colleagues, is endearingly candid about the ups and downs of his career, and acknowledges that his reincarnation as the "Godfather of Electronica" owes much to a lager advert.
**Ray Davies, "Waterloo Sunset".
The Warrior's Honor. Michael Ignatieff. Vintage £7.99
Between 1993 and 1997, Ignatieff visited some of the most strife-torn parts of the planet. He talked with Serbian soldiers, witnessed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and accompanied UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to Rwanda. Ignatieff describes these encounters with journalistic vividness, but he also goes much further, seeking to analyse the conflicts in order to try and find answers to the questions we all ask. Is intervention the answer? And what drives peacefully co-existing neighbours to start killing one another?
**Sven Lindqvist, "Exterminate The Brutes".
Roger Fishbite. Emily Prager. Chatto & Windus £10
"Lolita" is retold from the girl's point of view in this clever and very witty update of Nabokov's classic scenario. Now the twelve-year-old nymphet is called Lucky Linderhof, she's a devotee of Ricki Lake and the Internet, and she knows exactly what's going on when mother's new lodger starts to show an unhealthy interest. Lucky thinks she's in control of what follows, but her emotional immaturity - delicately conveyed by Prager - adds a real sense of poignancy to the comedy, as Lucky turns urban terrorist to combat child exploitation.
**Vladimir Nabokov, "Lolita".
Starman. Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony. Bloomsbury £7.99
Yuri Gagarin is the last remaining Soviet hero, and flowers are still laid at the spot where he died in a mysterious plane crash in 1968. This fascinating biography is based on interviews with the people who worked alongside him on the Russian space program, and tells a story that was kept hidden for many years. Gagarin's peasant roots made him a politically ideal first cosmonaut, but his womanising led to a fall from grace, and his subsequent marginalisation had tragic consequences.
**Victor Pelevin, "Omon Ra".
Arithmetic. Todd McEwen. Vintage £5.99
The space race forms part of the background to McEwen's charming novel about growing up in sixties America. Joe Lake's dad works in a laboratory, and scientific optimism pervades the young boy's world. But the family's own home was bought up and demolished to make way for Disneyland, and the American dream is shown to be as false as one of Walt's cartoons. Joe tells his own story, and his off-the-wall observations raise the book well above the usual run of novels about childhood.
**Patrick Chamoiseau, "School Days".
The Beast In The Nursery. Adam Phillips. Faber and Faber £7.99
Phillips is a psychotherapist, and in a series of books lying somewhere between self-help and belles-lettres he has established a unique place for himself as what Adam Mars-Jones aptly calls "a philosopher of happiness". His latest considers the Freudian narrative of childhood, and questions our acceptance of the idea that growing up is an inevitable process of disillusionment and loss. Phillips proposes instead that we see it as one of transformation, as we learn to incorporate experience into "the art of everyday life".
**Robert Coles, "The Moral intelligence Of Children".
A Genius In The Family. Hilary and Piers du Pre. Vintage £7.99
Re-issued as a tie-in with the film "Hilary and Jackie" which it inspired, this sensitive but controversial memoir of Jacqueline du Pre claims that the great cellist's apparent exuberance, and her positive attitude to the MS that ended her career at the age of 28, wasn't the whole story. Her marriage to Daniel Barenboim was no bed of roses, and sibling rivalry came to a head when Jackie had an affair with her own brother-in-law.
**Peter F. Ostwald, "Glenn Gould".
Twelve Grand. Jonathan Rendall. Yellow Jersey Press £10
Yellow Jersey gave Rendall £12,000 and told him to gamble the lot, keep the winnings, and write a factual book about what happened. Knowing a good deal when he saw one, Rendall went to Las Vegas and had a good time, then handed in this passable novel (worth around two grand) about an alcoholic writer offered betting money by a gullible publisher. Hopeful punters needn't bother contacting Yellow Jersey; I don't think they'll want to repeat the experiment.
**Fyodor Dostoevsky, "The Gambler".
When it Works it feels like play. Tessa Ransford. Ramsay Head Press £7.95
Ransford was born in India in 1938, and in the early part of her life was involved in welfare and missionary work. She's best known as the founder-director of the Scottish Poetry Library and as editor of the recently-defunct poetry magazine Lines Review, and in her own new collection she shows the wide range of her concerns, from the personal to the cosmic, in poems of great delicacy, balance and restraint.
**Robert Davidson (ed), "After The Watergaw".
Xerxes. Jonathan Buckley. Fourth Estate £10.99
Buckley's atmospheric historical romance is set in 1820s Germany, where architect August Ettlinger arrives at the home of a wealthy, mysterious dilettante who offers him the use of his vast library, then commissions a new house from him. Ettlinger imagines the ancient palace of Xerxes in interpolated passages reminiscent of Calvino's "Invisible Cities", and the claustrophobic salon world which the characters inhabit, their strange anecdotes and play-acting, bring to mind writers of the period such as Goethe and Hoffmann.
**Andrew Crumey, "Pfitz".
Seeds Of Change. Henry Hobhouse. Papermac £12
Fifteen years after its original publication, Hobhouse's fascinating book on "plants that transformed mankind" has already become something of a classic, and is now re-issued with a new chapter adding coca - the source of cocaine - to sugar, tea, cotton, quinine and the humble spud. Combining social history and science to show how world events have been influenced by agriculture, the narration has a distinctly Old Etonian feel that adds to its charm.
**Christopher Wills, "Plagues".
D. M. Thomas. Abacus £10.99
Born just after the Russian Revolution, the author of "The Gulag Archipelago" grew up an ardent Leninist and fought in the Red Army before enduring the years of imprisonment and persecution which inspired his fiction. Thomas's impressive biography paints a vivid picture of life under the Soviet regime, and charts the writer's progress from dissident hero to post-communist reactionary.
**Joseph Frank, "Dostoevsky".
Patrick Chamoiseau. Granta £9.99
Chamoiseau comes from the French-speaking Caribbean island of Martinique and writes in a mixture of Creole dialect and literary French. This delightful early novel describes the life and death of story-teller Solibo, killed by his own words in front of an audience at carnival time. Police investigators, witnesses and Solibo all speak, in a magical, exuberant collage of voices.
**Caryl Phillips, "The Final Passage"
Notes From The North.
Emma Wood. Luath Press £8.99
Wood is a young Englishwoman who settled in Sutherland and was surprised to find a place with a history and culture that had little to do with her own. Her discovery of Scotland is the theme of her book, but it's hard to know which particular audience this odd miscellany is aimed at. The handy potted history section has general appeal, but mostly this is a guide for settlers from south of the border.
**Andrew Fisher, "A Traveller's History Of Scotland".
George Fox. Penguin £7.99
Fox was the founder of the Quaker movement, and while imprisoned for his beliefs in the 1670s he dictated an account of his life to his son-in-law. The original manuscript serves as the source of this new edition of one of the most remarkable autobiographies in the English language. Some have compared it to James Joyce; Molly Bloom's endless nocturnal soliloquy gives an idea of the style.
**H. Larry Ingle, "First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism".
Shakespeare In Love:
The Love Poetry Of William Shakespeare. Faber and Faber £4.99
This ever-so-tasteful little book contains sixteen of the bard's best-known sonnets, snippets from some of the plays, and lots and lots of sepia photos of Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow doing their bit for the heritage industry. You can pick up the complete works for not much more, but the paper won't be nearly as nice, and this one's easier to manage alongside the popcorn and Kleenex.
**William Shakespeare, "Romeo and Juliet".
Frankie Bosser Comes Home.
Jerry Raine. Victor Gollancz £9.99
Set among the underclass of London's less desirable suburbs, Raine's enjoyable follow-up to "Smalltime" begins with minor crook Phil Gator having an altercation with an elderly driver who splashes him as he stands at the roadside. The driver subsequently has a heart attack, and the vengeful son who comes home for the funeral turns out to be a criminal from a bigger and nastier league than Phil's.
**Jeremy Cameron, "It Was An Accident".
Lauren Slater. Hamish Hamilton £9.99
Slater understands the treatment of mental illness from both sides. She has a doctorate in psychology, and she suffered a host of symptoms including depression and obsessive-compulsive behaviour that were alleviated when she became one of the first people to take Prozac. She describes her experiences in edgy, impressionistic tones that convey the precarious normality the drug has brought.
**Kay Jamison, "An Unquiet Mind".
Three Miles Down
James Hamilton-Paterson. Vintage £7.99
The Japanese submarine I-52 and British liner SS Aurelia were both carrying tons of gold when they went down in the Atlantic during the Second World War. Novelist and poet James Hamilton-Paterson was invited to join a high-tech expedition to explore the wrecks, and he describes the tensions and longeurs of a voyage culminating in a spell-binding seven-hour descent to the sea bed.
**William Beebe, "Half Mile Down".
A Blessing On The Moon
Joseph Skibell. Abacus £6.99
The protagonist of this haunting debut novel is the author's great-grandfather Chaim Skibelski, who was shot along with the other Jews of his village in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. But instead of resting peacefully, Chaim wakes from the ordeal as a maimed ghost, and in the company of a rabbi reincarnated as a crow he makes a series of strange encounters which mingle magic with reality.
**Jerzy Kosinski, "The Painted Bird".
Pilgrimage On A Steel Ride.
Gary Paulsen. Indigo £6.99
Some men, when they reach a certain age and disposable income, decide they've got to have a Harley-Davidson, and after a lifetime of lesser bikes Paulsen joined the club at 57. Heart disease made the three-year waiting list for a new machine too long to risk, so he chose a used one for this very American journey of self discovery, which takes him from New Mexico to Alaska and back.
**Melissa Holbrook Pierson, "The Perfect Vehicle".
Des Dillon. Review £9.99
Dillon's a poet as well as a novelist, and genre-crossing is much in evidence in this engaging story of a seventies Central Belt childhood. Assorted fonts and typesizes are used to humorous effect, and while the vernacular is in the Kelman tradition, the tone is much lighter. The exploits of young hero Derrick cover familiar territory, but the sense of recognition will be the chief delight for many readers. **Mark Twain, "Huckleberry Finn".
Remind Me Who I Am, Again.
Linda Grant. Granta. £7.99
The author's mother Rose was born to Russian-Jewish immigrants, and the onset of senile dementia posed a threat not only to Rose's identity but moreover to a seam of family history concerning the generation of which Rose was the last survivor. Grant's sensitive and deeply moving account of life with her mother is also a piecing together of the past, and an exploration of the vital significance of memory. **Louise Kehoe, "In This Dark House".
Yoryis Yatromanolakis. Dedalus £8.99
Yatromanolakis is one of Greece's most distinguished living novelists, and his works eschew conventional plot in favour of a meditative, cyclical style that's often rather sombre. This book, warmer in tone, is in many ways his most accessible. Essentially a pick'n'mix manual of erotic tips, it's written in rich, archaic language, elegantly translated by David Connolly, and has passages of wit and real beauty. **Robert Irwin, "Prayer Cushions Of The Flesh".
Geoff Nicholson. Victor Gollancz £9.99
Kelly is a female taxi driver in Suffolk whose father designed impossible buildings. An American hires Kelly for a sightseeing tour, and their resulting affair leads Kelly to discover that her dad might actually have built something after all. His architectural essays intercut a story that's simpler and less compelling than Nicholson's recent "Bleeding London", but which still has its moments. **Jonathan Buckley, "Xerxes"
The Romantic Generation
Charles Rosen. HarperCollins £14.99
A lifetime of performance and study are brought to bear in this magnificent exploration of European music in the two decades following the death of Beethoven. Pianist Charles Rosen sets romantic composers such as Schumann in the context of the literary aesthetics of the period, and he gives an extended and truly revelatory account of Chopin: "the greatest master of counterpoint since Mozart". **Charles Rosen, "The Classical Style".
On The Trail Of William Wallace
David R. Ross. Luath Press £7.99
Latest title from an enterprising Edinburgh publishing house named after Robert Burns's pet dog is this very enjoyable guide to Wallace landmarks. The author, a proud patriot and unashamed romantic, presents an impressive collection of local folklore and little-known fact alongside the story of Wallace's life, offering an off-beat tourist trail for the historically minded. **William Hamilton of Gilbertfield, "Blind Harry's Wallace".
The World and Other Places.
Jeanette Winterson. Vintage £6.99
Stories written in the fourteen years since Winterson began her career with "Oranges are Not the Only Fruit" are collected here for the first time. Many are fragmentary, end too soon, and appear to be sketch material for her novels; among the more developed pieces, a story about a disappearing house is one of several gems.The best and the worst of Winterson's style are on display in this mixed bag. **A. M. Homes, "The Safety Of Objects".
Into The Wild
Jon Krakauer. Pan £5.99
Chris McCandless was a brilliant, wayward kid from Washington D.C. whose idealism led him to give away all his possessions and hit the open road, eventually reaching Alaska where he intended to live off the land. Four months later, hunters found his emaciated corpse. Locals thought the boy was crazy; Krakauer makes sense of the tragedy in a book that's compelling, finely written, and deeply moving. **Glenn Randall, "Breaking Point".
A Stairway To Paradise
Madeleine St John. Fourth Estate £9.99
The author's last novel, "The Essence Of The Thing", made the Booker shortlist in 1997; I think it safe to say she won't do the same with this one. A slight tale of middle-class adultery in London, it's populated by time-warped people beamed in from the fifties whose clipped voices belong in a Radio Four afternoon play, and whose idea of a hot date is going to buy ices in the car. **Madeleine Bourdouxhe, "Marie".
The Justice Game
Geoffrey Robertson. Vintage £7.99
Since defending the editors of "Oz" in 1971, Robertson has been involved in a string of high-profile civil liberty cases, including Matrix Churchill and the "cash for questions" libel action. He argues, with all the force and eloquence you'd expect, that the judiciary are better guardians of freedom than elected politicians, and offers a window on the English legal system that's entertaining and at times hilarious. **John Sweeney, "Purple Homicide".
Five Pubs, Two Bars and a Nightclub
John Williams. Bloomsbury £9.99
A sequence of linked stories takes us into the seedy underworld of Cardiff, of all places. We see a multi-cultural city in which a hoodlum proposes to open a Nation of Islam mosque in the ground floor of his nightclub, drugs are being off-loaded from ferries, and everyone's out to make some cash by fair means or foul. It's nicely plotted and engagingly written, and the Welsh Tourist Board will hate it. **Jerry Raine, "Frankie Bosser Comes Home".
The Woman and the Puppet
Pierre Louys. Dedalus £6.99
Oscar Wilde described the author as "too beautiful to be a man"; his classic tale of sexual teasing, in which the beautiful Concha offers her lover everything except her virginity, has been filmed several times. Marlene Dietrich took the role in "The Devil Is A Woman"; Luis Bunuel called his version "That Obscure Object Of Desire". Concha says of her prize: "It's my guitar, and I'll play it for whoever I like". **Abbe Prevost "Manon Lescaut"
The Greatest Benefit To Mankind
Roy Porter. FontanaPress £14.99
This magnificent "medical history of humanity" looks at traditional, alternative and world therapies as well as the growth of orthodox medicine, surgery and healthcare in the west. Among countless fascinating pieces of information, I was intrigued to learn that "Lily The Pink" was a real person (Lydia Pinkham), whose medicinal compound made her America's first millionairess. **W. H. McNeill, "Plagues and Peoples".
A World Of Women
Rosemary Auchmuty. The Women's Press £8.99
Fans of Elinor Brent-Dyer's still-popular "Chalet School" books will appreciate this critical appraisal of these and other girls' school stories. Following on from Auchmuchty's "A World Of Girls", this sequel looks at portrayals of adulthood, work and marriage in the likes of Elsie Oxenham's "Abbey" books and Dorita Fairlie Bruce's "Dimsie" series, providing full bibliographies for avid collectors. **M. Cadogan, P. Craig, "You're a Brick, Angela!".
The Lone Woman
Bernardo Atxaga. Harvill £8.99
Basque novelist Atxaga's last book was called "The Lone Man" and featured a former terrorist. So does this one, though the mood is rather different, with the observations of released convict Irene being more important than plot. As she takes the bus back to her home in Bilbao, her memories and dreams build a picture of her past life in and out of prison which is atmospheric and wholly convincing. **Javier Marias, "A Heart So White".
Traditional Foods Of Britain
Laura Mason with Catherine Brown. Prospect Books £19.50
The EU's penchant for definition is the subject of much ridicule, but one of its happier manifestations was an ambitious project to list regional foods still on sale to the public. The British results are published here, and they provide a wonderful cornucopia of gastronomic information, with everything from the dimensions of pikelets to the history of Barr's Irn-Bru. **Lynda Brown, "The Shopper's Guide To Organic Food".
The Last Look
Candida Clark. Vintage £5.99
This is a multi-voiced, nonlinear narrative in which nobody has a name, and I confess I was a wee bit confused to begin with. But what emerges is an arresting, atmospheric story of a brief affair between a young English woman and an elderly, dying American writer. Intensely written and strongly European in flavour, it's a strikingly mature debut by a novelist still only in her twenties. **Lydia Davis, "The End of the Story"
The Seville Communion
Arturo Perez-Reverte. Harvill £6.99
Intelligent, densely plotted page-turners are this Spanish author's forte, and they've made him one of his country's biggest sellers. This one starts brilliantly, with a hacker breaking into the Pope's personal computer in order to warn about a lethal feud among church leaders in Seville. Father Lorenzo Quart is sent to investigate, and faces danger and temptation as an enjoyably tangled story develops. **Umberto Eco, "The Name Of The Rose".
Gender, Sex & Subordination in England 1500-1800
Anthony Fletcher. Yale University Press £14.95
The nature of patriarchy in the early modern period is explored in this deeply researched academic study, which draws on the literature, medical science and social history of the period to analyse the way in which new ideas of gender were beginning to emerge. It's heavyweight reading, pleasing for the wealth of information it brings together, if sometimes questionable in its interpretations. **Olwen Hufton, "The Prospect Before Her".
Sadam's Secrets: The Hunt for Iraq's Hidden Weapons.
Tim Trevan. HarperCollins £8.99
Trevan trained as a biologist before joining the Foreign Office, and between 1992 and 1995 he was part of the UNSCOM team attempting to monitor Iraq's arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. His blow-by-blow account of the inspection process is more detailed than the average general reader might wish, but it's a valuable record which fully conveys the frustrations his team faced. **Wendy Barnaby, "The Plague Makers".
Under The Shadow.
Brid Hetherington. Cualann Press £12.99
Hugh Mann was training to be a Free Church minister when he met sixteen-year old Jessie Reid in 1911. She became pregnant before their hasty wedding in 1914, on the same day that he enlisted. He perished in the war; Jessie kept their letters until her own death in 1976. Filled with the ordinary concerns of any young couple in love, and reflecting the stifling attitudes of the time, they tell a tragic story. **Isabella G. MacLean, "Your Father and I".