Black Dogs by Ian McEwan, Cape pounds 13.99. An oddly daring book for McEwan to have written: no shock tactics. At the centre is the relationship between leftist Bernard and mystic June, as reconstructed by their son-in-law Jeremy. What unfolds is a tale of competing belief systems, taking us to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and back to a dramatic encounter (brilliantly described) with the black dogs of the title. A subtle, deepening, multi-layered novella.
Mao II by Don DeLillo, Vintage pounds 5.99. The obsessively tinkering novelist Bill Gray has been living reclusively, away from 'the world of images'. Then two things happen: a woman photographer becomes obsessed with him; and his publisher asks him to make a public appearance on behalf of a Swiss writer being held hostage in Beirut. Can art stand up to terrorism? Haunted by bombs and the media, brilliant on crowd scenes (a Moonie wedding, Khomeini's funeral, Hillsborough), this is one of the great novels of recent years.
Brightness Falls by Jay McInerney, Bloomsbury pounds 15.99. An attempt at the kind of teeming panoramic big-city novel Tom Wolfe has said every self-respecting American man of letters should get under his belt. If it doesn't quite follow the Wolfe brief, this story about the trials of the Calloways, two media thirtysomethings, does represent a subtle repositioning in the market, the syntax lifted out of the street and moved closer to the middle of the road.
Jazz by Toni Morrison, Chatto pounds 14.99. After the hugely successful Beloved, Jazz (in some ways a sequel) is set in the Twenties, and features a three-way relationship. Jazz itself plays in the background, a metaphor for comfort and release from servitude. Like Beloved, this is a book about survival, 'about a breakout from confinement, a move towards a better place'.
Talking it Over by Julian Barnes, Picador pounds 5.99. Shorn of the fripperies and literary conceits of A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, this book returns Barnes to what he does best - talking. It is the story, told in turns by the characters themselves, of best friends Stuart and Oliver and of Gillian, who marries Stuart but is stolen by Oliver. The ventriloquy is excellent (grey-souled Stuart, narcissistic Oliver, quietly resourceful Gillian) and the characters' meditations on the mysteries of love are funny and sad.
Vox by Nicholson Baker, Granta pounds 7.99. Baker's third novel, sexually explicit (it consists of a phone conversation between two strangers trying to talk each other to orgasm), much promoted, ambivalently received. High art, or high-class pornography, or something in between? What's indisputable is that Baker is the great annotator of thinginess, and that this book, like The Mezzanine, is best at the small and surprising detail.
The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam, Abacus pounds 5.99. Last year's best novel, according to the Whitbread judges. An ingenious, funny, satirical, sad story told in letters by a suburban busybody, the sort who likes to give her neighbours the benefit of her advice. A study in self-delusion that, with clever twists, adds up to a vivid and poignant portrait.
Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth, Hamish Hamilton pounds 14.99. Narrative in the grand style, a story of two men, one who signs on as ship's doctor for a slave voyage, the other the son of the ship's owner. The progress of the ship, from construction to cargo vessel to floating prison, allows Unsworth to test his characters in extremes of feeling. Carefully researched, this is a book rich in brutal details of the slave trade.
Ulverton by Adam Thorpe, Secker pounds 14.99. Thorpe's subject is the English landscape and the half-noticed people who live against it. His setting is a downland village in Berkshire, out of which comes a series of interlinked narratives - a shepherd in 1650, a woman writting letters in 1742, a squire in 1914, a television film in 1988, etc. Tender, precise, tragicomic: you almost believe you're hearing the voice of the dead.
A Closed Eye by Anita Brookner, Cape pounds 13.99. Harriet marries a rich man as old as her father and, like most Brookner heroines, lives vicariously, observing with envy her friend Tessa and her own daughter, beautiful but heartless Imogen. Brookner on form: poised, reflective, elegant.
O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker, Penguin pounds 5.99 Exquisite, award-winning novel which begins with the mysterious death of a 16-year-old girl in a Scottish country house. Retracing her life, the story is a poetic and blackly comic account of her unhappy childhood in a remote setting which, recreated so sensuously it makes you feel the wind on the heath, echoes her emotional isolation.
Ever After by Graham Swift, Picador pounds 14.99. Bill Unwin is one of life's losers, an ageing academic haunted by the memory of two suicides: his wife's (she killed herself after contracting cancer) and his father's (was mother's affair the cause?). Unwin's work on the notebooks of a Victorian ancestor of dangerous Darwininan belief adds another strand to this quiet, very English novel, despite comic moments Swift's bleakest so far.
Varying Degrees of Hopelessness by Lucy Ellmann, Penguin pounds 5.99. Set in a seat of learning uncannily resembling the Courtauld Institute, this accomplished little satire is a drama of unrequited love and courtships gone wrong that parodies Jane Austen, Barbara Cartland and various icons in between. Sharp, witty and engaging.
Indigo by Marina Warner, Chatto pounds 14.99. A reworking of The Tempest, set on a 17th-century Caribbean island and in 20th-century Britain, this is the story of English adventurer Kit Everard and his descendants, of island people crushed by colonial greed and of ultimate redemption through honesty and love. Warner can wear her ideas a little ostentatiously, but there is no resisting the appeal of her story or of its voices.
Dunedin by Shena Mackay, Heinemann pounds 14.99. A novel that promises to be a multi-generational family saga, but is chiefly the story of a middle- aged brother and sister living in present-day London. There is comedy, drama and a hint of madness but the book's most engaging feature is its vivid treatment of the city itself.
The Granta Book of the American Short Story, ed Richard Ford, pounds 16.99. Leapfrogging over problems of political correctness, or of assessing currents in post-war American literature, Ford goes unashamedly for his personal favourites, Updike, Vonnegut, Eudora Welty, Harold Brodkey, Lorrie Moore, Jean Stafford and his buddy Raymond Carver among them.
Kissing the Gunner's Daughter by Ruth Rendell, Hutchinson pounds 14.99. A country house bloodbath. Host blown away at the foot of the stairs, wife and daughter dead at the dining table, granddaughter wounded, panting into the telephone for help. Even Chief Inspector Wexford is taken aback. He plods on, seemingly clueless, for 300 pages, until the brilliant denouement.
Fatherland by Robert Harris, Hutchinson pounds 14.99. 1964, and Hitler is alive, well, and in control of Europe. The sudden deaths of four elderly men set the loner detective on a trail back to the Final Solution, and, en passant, into the arms of a woman journalist. Pacy, intellectually respectable but not too taxing: just the thing.
Cabal by Michael Dibdin, Faber pounds 14.99. The third outing for Aurelio Zen, Dibdin's gritty Venetian bloodhound detective, finds sin and wickedness in the splendid setting of Vatican City. Red tape, rivalry between law-enforcers, gridlock and power cuts all do their best to keep Zen from getting to the bottom of things, but tenacity wins out. A pleasurable read.
An Olympic Death by Manuel Vazquez Montalban, Serpent's Tail pounds 7.99. Pepe Carvhalho, sage, gastronome and increasingly fashionable detective, is not a happy man: the Olympic bulldozers are destroying traditional Barcelona, middle-age and death are pressing, and his professional expertise is shaken by a new case. Can he pull round? Timely title.
Clockers by Richard Price, Bloomsbury pounds 15.99. Big, shocking, and highly praised novel from the ex-cocaine addict who wrote the screenplays for Sea of Love and The Colour of Money. Set among the grim housing projects of New York, it starts with just another drug-related murder, but develops into a powerful picture of the degradation of the late-20th century American city: ghetto culture, the casual racism of the cops, the brutal free enterprise logic of the dealers and the suffering of junkie Aids victims, dying in an abandoned hospital within view of the Statue of Liberty. POETRY
Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope Faber pounds 12.99/ pounds 4.99. Wendy Cope defends herself against patronising reviewers: 'Write to amuse?/What an appalling suggestion]/I write to make people anxious/and miserable and to worsen their indigestion.' Her new collection deals with the disappointments of love and poets, but it remains light verse - playful, quick to seize on quirks of language, and highly pleasurable.
Evagatory by Peter Reading, Chatto pounds 5.99. Sad but enlivening poems for a spoilt planet. Renaissance travellers' tales, old English ballads, the lament of an Australian convict and the 'richly mellifluous' song of a nightingale jostle with hard-nosed reports on the state of England, as we 'poor mad islanders' drown in cars, muck and junk and a 'wandering dosser' buttonholes us with his story of the ending of the world.
The Man With Night Sweats by Thom Gunn Faber pounds 11.99/ pounds 5.99. Gunn's first book for 10 years says farewell to rebellious youth and celebrations of the body and turns attention to Aids and ageing: 'I wake up cold, I who/Prospered through dreams of heat/Wake to the residue,/Sweat, and a clinging sheet.' The loss of gay friends leaves Gunn mourning fleshly frailty - and leaves us with as moving a collection of elegies as British poetry has produced in many a year.
Rain-Charm for the Duchy by Ted Hughes, Faber pounds 12.99. A collection of Hughes's nine Laureate poems padded out with esoteric footnotes. An easy target for mocking reviewers, and some lines about the Windsors scarcely bear repeating (on Fergie and Andrew's wedding: 'A helicopter snatched you up/The pilot it was me'). But there are powerful passages, too (see the title-poem's rain-shower), and if the reverence for English tradition can seem ridiculous, the Royal Family's failure to embody its values is part of the trouble.
The Man Who Wasn't Maigret by Patrick Marnham, Bloomsbury pounds 17.99. The statistics are overwhelming: some 400 novels and 27 volumes of memoirs; anywhere between 1,200 and 10,000 women, depending on who was counting. 'Most people work every day and enjoy sex periodically,' comments Marnham. 'Simenon had sex every day and every few months indulged in a frenzied orgy of work.' Unravelling the truths of Simenon's life and fictions, Marnham displays a dogged persistence worthy of Simenon himself.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, HarperCollins pounds 17.50. A century of family and national history intersecting through the lives of four generations of women: great-grandmother in late-19th century Manchuria, who had no name of her own; grandmother, sold as a concubine to a warlord; mother, a Communist rebel detained during Mao's cultural revolution; and Jung Chang herself, who came here in 1978, and has assembled this absorbing, prizewinning book.
Elton by Philip Norman, Arrow pounds 6.99. What turned Reggie Dwight, the studious little Pinner boy who never skipped piano practice, into Elton John, superstar? Norman gives us the facts: the prodigious ability to turn out tunes, the drinking, weight problem, hair transplants, bisexuality, short-lived marriage and libel damages. But this 500-odd page 'definitive biography' still can't tell us what Elton is actually like.
Wouldn't It Be Nice by Brian Wilson with Todd Gold, Bloomsbury pounds 17.99. He was the first pop musician to be described as a genius, and he may still be the only one to deserve the epithet. But wouldn't you know, behind the Beach Boys' lush hymns to growing up in the California sun lies the tale of a family in perpetual strife? The three Wilson brothers were pushed and persecuted by their father, and big, sensitive Brian found refuge in hallucinogenics; he was saved only by his shrink. Fascinating, smoothly ghosted autobiography, not entirely to be trusted.
Goethe: The Poet and the Age, Vol 1: The Poetry of Desire by Nicholas Boyle, OUP pounds 15. Monumental scholarly works are not everyone's idea of a fun beach read, but when else will you find time to discover what made contemporaries describe Goethe as 'the greatest man the world has ever produced'? By his mid-20s he was giving audiences four times a week; by 40 he had attained god-like literary status. Boyle has sifted through a mountain of material to produce a remarkable survey of 18th-century intellectual life.
Bob Boothby: A Portrait by Robert Rhodes James, Headline pounds 7.99. Enjoyable analysis of the most colourful politician of his generation, unfairly remembered as a gigolo who nearly stole Dorothy from Harold Macmillan. Rhodes James gives the famous affair its due, but is even more interesting on Boothby the politician: vociferous opponent of Appeasement, brave abstainer from the Suez crisis vote, a man whose advancement was blocked by his own outspokenness, the jealousy of colleagues and the whiff of scandal.
Jean Rhys by Carole Angier, Penguin pounds 9.99. The myth of Rhys haunts as surely as any of her tales of pathetic, abandoned women, but even this protective biography shows her to have been a monster. A spectacular drunk, she was propped up, emotionally and financially, by long-suffering friends and adoring husbands whom she repaid with complaints and physical batterings. It was left to Wide Sargasso Sea to transmute self-pity into art.
Being Divine: A Biography of Sarah Bernhardt by Ruth Brandon, Manadarin pounds 7.99. The first of the self-made sex goddesses, a natural beauty with a wonderful voice, a talent for acting on and off the stage and an enviable ability to defy the ravages of time. Brandon chronicles it all - the childhood in the Parisian demi-monde, the illegitimate son, the triumphs at the Comedie-Francaise. The perspective is feminist: possible anorexia and child sexual abuse are explored. Yet the feel and smell of Bernhardt elude us.
My Father and Myself by J R Ackerley, Pimlico pounds 8.00. 'I was born in 1896 and my parents were married in 1919.' Welcome reprint of this classic of filial homage, in which the younger Ackerley (solid career at the BBC, gay cruising, true love with his Alsatian dog Tulip), unearths the truth about his well-to-do father, not least the fact that he had a secret mistress and three daughters.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond, Verso pounds 6.99. Why do we humans think we're any better than the common chimp when DNA shows that we are its closest relative and when, in sexual behaviour, we fall somewhere between the monogamous gibbon and the promiscuous baboon? Why are they and not we in zoos? What about animal experiments? Lively study, winner of the 1992 Science prize.
The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe by Charles Nicholl, Cape pounds 19.99. Marlowe's death in Deptford 399 years ago is often presented as a pub brawl that got out of hand. Exploring the notion of a conspiracy and cover- up, this book blows open the world of Elizabethan espionage, and presents the most comprehensive case yet for disbelieving the official inquest.
Whores in History by Nickie Roberts, HarperCollins pounds 16.99. If prostitution is the oldest profession for women, the oldest for men must be the business of harrying, exploiting and stigmatising the institution they themselves support. This chronological history leaves one aghast at the durability, across many cultures and ages, of the old double standard. An impassioned, relentlessly
researched, crusading study.
Under Fire: An American Story by Oliver L North with William Novak, Fontana pounds 6.99. Colonel Ollie speaks out about the Iran-Contra scandal, cheekily using Nancy Reagan's ghostwriter. An awed supporter of all Reagan seemed to represent, he was destroyed by the President's convenient amnesia and is in no mood to forgive and forget. Despite hints at a Messianic streak in its author, Under Fire reveals a greater understanding of the subtleties of US foreign policy than many who have held office have displayed.
The Oxford Book of Essays ed John Gross, OUP pounds 9.99. A fat feast of prose ranging from Bacon on truth to Clive James on Judith Krantz. Classics include Swift's 'Meditation on a Broomstick', Thomas Fuller on anger and Doctor Johnson on debtors' prisons. Modern Americans (Updike, Didion) are well represented. Science, too.
Haunts of the Black Masseur by Charles Sprawson, Cape pounds 15.99. Wide-ranging exploration of the pleasures and dangers of swimming through an examination of the lives of writers, artists and cultural heroes from Shelley to Weissmuller. Obsessive swimmer Rupert Brooke once emerged naked from an Oxfordshire river and came face-to-face with Prime Minister Asquith; Tennessee Williams was buried at sea where Hart Crane drowned because, he said, he had always wanted to meet him. An agreeable book, dense with information: you'll you want to put it down and jump straight in the pool.
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