BOOKS / Paperbacks

The Conquest of Mexico by Hugh Thomas, Pimlico pounds 12.50. Cortes and his tiny army did not pluck a plum that was ripe to fall. The Aztec expansion had begun less than 100 years earlier and in 1518 their culture remained vigorous. Nor were they crudely colonial, but, like a modern superpower, controlled with some subtlety a network of client states from a magnificent and advanced centre. Excellent mathematicians, craftsmen and civil administrators, the Mexicans would easily have assimilated the Spaniards' innovations - iron, candles, the alphabet, horses, wheeled transport. It was smallpox, another present from Europe, which denied them the chance. Without the virus (and for all his courage and military skill) Cortes might well have been crushed, with intriguing consequences for the course of history.

This extremely fine, large-scale narrative of the conquistador adventure is the first since the monumental work of Prescott 150 years ago.

My Idea of Fun by Will Self, Penguin pounds 5.99. This first confident novel made the author's name - a name which in itself is like a middle finger up the idea of literary reticence. His plot is a reworking of the legend of Faust selling his soul to the devil (known in the book as the Fat Controller) but Self's literary models are more William Burroughs and Martin Amis, although the shuddering disgust he generates is clearly meant to break the Richter scale. It's forced right in your face, or your neck, given what the protagonist does on page two to the tramp, just after he has decapitated him.

The Way to Xanadu: The Search for the Sources of Coleridge's Kubla Khan by Caroline Alexander, Phoenix pounds 5.99. Alexander is one of a band of travel writers reviving H V Morton's 'in search of' mode: historical obsession is assuaged by a journey to associated sites; modern life plays counterpoint. Today Kubla Khan's Xanadu is Yengshan-tu, a windswept ruin in Inner Mongolia. But the quest for Coleridge's symbolic landscape also takes Alexander to India, Florida and Ethiopia. She has a striking gift for a phrase, describing a town in China 'so new that it did not sit comfortably under the sky, which seemed in its vastness to pour down upon it'. There's a real Coleridgean ring to that.

Foxfire by Joyce Carol Oates, Picador pounds 6.99. According to its blurb, this is a 'careening' novel - which in my dictionary means it will turn you on your side and scrape off your barnacles. The story of a gang of female avengers is certainly abrasive, though their male targets are a little obvious (fat child-abusing uncle, bullying teacher, rapist at a bus station) and the setting - Fifties upstate New York - a shade anachronistic for a feminist terror gang. But the stand-up-and-cheer factor is strong, nevertheless.

Investigating Sex: Surrealist Discussions 1928-32 edited by Jose Pierre, Verso pounds 11.95.

Addicts of television's late, famously frank Sex Talk will not want to miss this singular relic of surrealism, since it proves that Andre Breton and friends anticipated Channel 4's idea by more than 60 years. Participants of these highly confessional sex-symposia - including Man Ray, Louis Aragon and Max Ernst - were mostly writers and artists but there was also Genbach, a scabrous unfrocked Jesuit, Jean Baldens-perger, a donkey-bonking revolutionary and the pseudonymous 'Madame Lena' who is given to screaming her sister's name at the moment of orgasm. These transcriptions, never less than interesting, are sometimes hilarious.

A Short Walk From Harrods by Dirk Bogarde, Penguin pounds 5.99. Bogarde opens this sixth volume of autobiography with a fine meditation on the loneliness of a ruefully returned expatriate. Then he moves, in flashback, to his French home of 20 years and his friend Forwood, whose terminal illness has forced him to sell up and return to London; then back again to how the Provence farmhouse was bought and converted. Even here, memory doesn't hold the door and he is driven still further into his childhood to tease out the meaning of home and comfort. Only towards the end does he return to present tense London, in which 'emptiness sighs'.

A Big Life by Susan Johnson, Faber pounds 6.99. Set in Sydney, London and seaside England in the Thirties, Johnson's second novel is about Billy Hayes, an acrobat whose skill on the high wire is far removed from his dozy, bumbling approach to life. The prose, full of the acrobat's energy and with all the fun of the prom-prom-prom, is beneath it all sad. Billy is a child-man, almost a simpleton, and his specialised way of life is doomed: Susan Johnson has produced an exceptionally assured piece of imagining.

The Great Year: Astrology, Millenarianism & History in the Western Tradition by Nicholas Campion, Arkana pounds 15. Campion rightly points out in his densely researched study that 'golden age and new age myths reduce humanity to a single mass, all of whom must be subject to a single, cosmically-sanctioned order.' Here lie the roots of totalitarianism, which he traces from early Mesopotamia to the contradictory modern traditions of authoritarian politics and New Ageism. The author is a working astrologer who rejects both of these. His positive conclusion is less clear. If I have him right he's a pragmatist who sees time, like nature, as a cyclical system within which human history runs in waves. The waves (which astrology charts) contain diversity and change - but 'no new dawns, only periods of readjustment'.

Beastly Tales by Vikram Seth, Phoenix pounds 4.99. The author of a rock-crushing novel about Indian independence here tries an older, sparer form: 10 verse cartoons, fables in which animals caricature human behaviour.

Two are original. In others Seth retells folk tales from India, China and Greece - as when the tortoise and the hare re-run their race, with a cynical twist. Seth writes a tight iambic line, for kids from nine to 99.

(Photographs omitted)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine