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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn