BOOKS / All the best for the beach: Still wondering what to pack along with your sun block? Then consult our discerning buyer's guide to what's hot

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The Independent Culture

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan, Picador pounds 4.99. An oddly shocking book from McEwan, because the shocks are so few. It centres on the relationship between leftist, rationalist Bernard and spiritual Jane, as reconstructed by the son-in-law narrator. A tale of competing belief systems which takes us to the fall of the Berlin Wall and back to a dramatic encounter with the dogs of the title.

Daughters of the House by Michele Roberts, Virago pounds 5.99. After years of being sidelined as an experimental feminist, Roberts achieved deserved prominence with this gripping, Booker- shortlisted novel set in post-war provincial France. It creates a taut and sensuous world of intriguing silences, half-lies and shameful secrets that cousins Therese and Leonie use to fuel their prodigious fantasies.

A Lazy Eye by Mary Morrissy, Cape pounds 8.99. Paperback original debut by a gifted Irish writer whose stories use human anatomy as a satisfyingly oblique iconography through which to probe damaged but resilient female psyches. In Morrissy's skewed world, where unwanted babies are blithely abandoned in department stores while the innocent are haunted by guilt, everything is surprising, but rings dazzlingly true.

The Children of Men by P D James, Faber pounds 8.99. Some critics were sniffy about the Christian allegorical sub-text, but this vividly imagined, morally anxious story set in a future England devoid of children slowly turns from a sci-fi fable into a classically unputdownable thriller.

Outerbridge Reach by Robert Stone, Penguin pounds 6.99. 'Bestselling author sails into copycat storm' ran the headlines when this novel about a round-the-world yacht race first appeared. The parallels with Donald Crowhurst are there, but Stone's insights into his hero's self-doubt and moral trials are all his own.

Jazz by Toni Morrison, Picador pounds 5.99. Set in Harlem in the Twenties, when the powerful mythology of black urban life began, this is a seething story of love and death. Morrison's prose is as sinuous and energetic as ever, but carefully channelled (more so than in Beloved) into the interplay of past and present.

Twenty Stories by Satyajit Ray, trs Gopa Majumdar, Penguin pounds 5.99. Ray, who died last year, was revered worldwide for such luminous films as The Chessplayers and Pather Panchali, but his fiction is less well known. These stories, newly translated from the Bengali, deal for the most part in ghoulies and ghosties. The innocence and wiliness, visual clarity and commitment to strong narrative that made the best of Ray's films so unforgettable are all discernible here.

Rotten Times by Paul Micou, Black Swan pounds 5.99. Micou's hero plugs in his razor in a plane loo and gets an electric shock that induces Tourraine's Syndrome, whose main symptom is total recall of everything you have ever known, felt or read. Cute comedy that turns on sudden possession of prodigous intellect and equally sudden realisation that you, a classically buttoned-up Englishman, have been in love for years and can no longer hide it; read it on the plane.

Border Lines: Stories of Exile & Home ed Kate Pullinger, Serpent's Tail pounds 8.99. An American befriends a Central Line busker only to discover he is a raving capitalist loony; a Canadian family's furniture (physical and mental) is rearranged by a long-forgotten Czech relative. 'Foreignness' as explored by a global range of contributors whose short, intimate accounts leave the impression that 'home' is not a place but a state of mind.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Penguin pounds 5.99. The much-hyped, thinking person's chiller. A group of classics students at a posh US university become entwined in an obsessive conspiracy that grows to a murderous conclusion. On the way, smart talk with a true heart of darkness.

My Life as a Whale by Dyan Sheldon, Arrow pounds 4.99. Manhattan in 1986, and Newsweek reveals that a 30-year-old, college-educated woman's chance of finding a husband is less than 10 per cent. Michael, a successful literary agent and bachelor, thus finds himself as endangered and hunted a species as the finback whale. Humour, insight and a feminist come-uppance.

Digging to Australia by Lesley Glaister, Minerva pounds 4.99. Jennifer's aim is to seem as ordinary as possible, but on her 13th birthday her true roots are revealed and she becomes a rebellious loner, finding refuge in the romantic, sinister Johnny. As local girls go missing, Her shifting loyalties and precarious innocence are skilfully evoked.

My Golden Trades by Ivan Klima, Penguin pounds 5.99. As a banned writer in Prague, Klima was obliged to take a variety of menial jobs - on an archeological dig, as a courier, an engine driver and a surveyor's assistant. These autobiographical stories celebrate his struggle against petty tyranny. The Czech proverb says 'a trade is a handful of gold' and Klima's fictions are just that.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, Picador pounds 4.25. Last year's joint Booker Prize-winner is set at the end of the Second World War in an Italian villa where a young Canadian woman nurses a badly burned patient. While she lives out a romantic rapport with an Indian sapper, he is launched by morphine into a sea of memories and recalls his passion for a married woman. Rhapsodic prose, yet full of tactile authenticity.

The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales ed Angela Carter, pounds 7.99. Second, and sadly final, volume of folk narratives collected by the late Angela Carter and brimming with the kind of gleeful, subversive energy that marked her own fiction. Carter trawled widely (from Africa, China, Japan, America, the Middle East and all corners of Europe) and the voices - wistful, naughty, pragmatic, resilient and gloriously optimistic - are timeless and universal. Delightful reading.

The Republic of Love by Carol Shields, Flamingo pounds 5.99. Commitment has always eluded both 35-year-old Fay, an expert on mermaids, and fortyish Tom, who after three failed marriages now lectures on the 'Ghettoisation of the Single in Contemporary Urban Society'. Then they meet . . . A dime-store romance in Winnipeg, transformed by poignantly precise insights.

Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker, Vintage pounds 5.99. 'There are those who believe Black people possess the secret of joy (which) will sustain them through any spiritual or moral or physical devastation'. Walker takes a minor figure from The Color Purple and traces the results of her decision to maintain contact with her tribal roots by going through the female initiation ceremony. A compelling story, the more chilling for Walker's reminder that some 100 million girls today have been genitally mutilated.

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel, Penguin pounds 6.99. Huge novel about the French Revolution, principally the story of Danton, Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins. The most affecting passages are the real events - Camille's anguished cry during his trial ('They are going to murder my wife]') and the execution of the Dantonists - though beside Simon Schama's Citizens it can seem like upmarket soap opera.

The Death of the Author by Gilbert Adair, Minerva pounds 4.99. On a leafy campus, America's favourite French deconstructionist is telling the story of his life and the triumph of his Theory - that the Author is dead, the text unconnected with the 'real' world of the writer's experience, the reader omnipotent. As the shameful confession of his wartime collaboration unfolds, so does his motive for inventing such a theory. A spectacularly twisted ivory tower whodunit which expertly analyses opportunism and the tragedy of those who intellectualise - and thereby justify - fascism.


Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, Flamingo pounds 6.99. An extraordinary account of three lives - the author's grandmother (warlord's concubine at 15), her mother (a communist hero) and herself (a victim of Maoist brainwashing). Jung Chang records the transformation of a quasi-feudal state into modern-day China with honesty and humour alongside the pain. A work of great talent.

In the Psychiatrist's Chair by Anthony Clare, Mandarin pounds 5.99. Twelve celebrities are probed by the psychiatrist who occupies a position somewhere between Terry Wogan and Sigmund Freud. Some survive the ordeal well - Anthony Hopkins's own introspection goes deeper than Clare's questioning - while others, like Claire Rayner, come rivetingly unstuck.

Our Treacherous Hearts by Rosalind Coward, Faber pounds 6.99. Subtitled 'Why Women Let Men Get Their Way', this is a timely, if glum, fin de siecle treatise on the failures of feminism. Still colluding with the idea that they should be 'nicer' than men, and appalled when they discover their own feelings of competitiveness and envy, many women of the 1990s find the legacy of the feminist movement is nothing but guilt and confusion. Interesting if impressionistic study.

Bette Davies by Barbara Leaming, Penguin pounds 6.99. No-holds-barred biography of one of Hollywood's most magnificent monsters who, abandoned by her father in childhood, never conquered her rage against humanity in general and men in particular. Leaming charts the histrionics on and off the film-set: the electric performances; the frightening cruelty towards fellow-actors; the four failed marriages to weak men, two of whom abused her; the miscarriages and the eventual birth of a daughter who eagerly supplies the author with ammunition for this book.

The Road Ahead by Christabel Bielenberg, Corgi pounds 5.99. Bielenberg's hugely popular previous memoir, The Past is Myself, was a feisty Englishwoman's account of life in Germany (she had married a German lawyer in 1934) during the war. What this sequel lacks in tension and drama - it tells of the family's generally peaceful post-war life in rural Ireland - it makes up for in good humour and generosity. A mild and kindly read.

Peter Pears: A Biography by Christopher Headington, Faber pounds 9.99. Not just the biography of an unusually gifted tenor, but a detailed picture of the intricate (some say incestuous) British music scene of the post-war years. Pears's fame rests not only on his own performances, but on his role as inspiration to his partner Benjamin Britten. This book does justice to both facets.

An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan, Vintage pounds 6.99. 'Said began beating John about the body as he lay on his mattress. The butt of his Kalashnikov thumped into him again and again.' It sounds like a brutal thriller, but this is Beirut and the blows are raining down on John McCarthy, Terry Anderson and Keenan himself. Everything is set down with the lucid self-possession that enabled Keenan to survive four-and-a-half years of terror. A moving and remarkable book.

The Faber Book of Soccer ed Ian Hamilton, pounds 8.99. The new season will be here before you know it, and this collection of fanatical, fantastical if also rather literary essays and extracts - Arnold Bennett, Nabokov, Orwell, Pinter, Camus, A J Ayer, Martin Amis, along with Hugh McIlvanney, Frank Keating and Eamon Dunphy - is essential touchline preparation.

Baghdad Sketches by Freya Stark, Marlboro Press pounds 7.99. Anyone intrigued by the admiring tributes to the intrepid Freya Stark that appeared on her death earlier this year will enjoy this, her first travel book, originally published in the 1930s. On Ramadan: 'Well after midnight I make my way home alone . . . The whole city rustles and moves and whispers in its labyrinthine alleys like a beehive swarming in the dark.' Often lyrical, always sharply observant and generous in spirit.

Oxford Literary Guide to Great Britain & Ireland ed Dorothy Eagle & Meic Stephens, pounds 6.99. New edition of this indispensable book- lover's equivalent of the Shell Guides. Best kept in the car or holdall so that you need never miss such unconsidered gems as the oddly forlorn, be- railinged grave of the mighty Thomas Carlyle in little Ecclefechan, or the solidly urban house in Tooting (of all places) where Thomas Hardy rested up after writing The Return of the Native.

The Place Where Souls Are Born by Thomas Keneally, Sceptre pounds 5.99. This journey into the American South-west is packed with intriguing observations and nuggets of knowledge, but more importantly dwells on the danger of thinking yourself a young country when you're an old one. Informed by a deep, wondering respect for the ancient Anasazi (cliff dwellers whose civilisation disappeared over 500 years ago), though reading at times like an ethnographic blurb.

Locations by Jan Morris, OUP pounds 5.99. Few writers earn a living from wanderlust. Morris has done so for over 40 years, and this collection of 18 recent city trips, from Glasgow to Canberra, makes you realise how. With her filmic, quirky detail (a street-cleaner rolling his eyes at the tourists outside Buckingham Palace), she vividly and idiosyncratically brings each place to life.

No Friends But the Mountains by John Bulloch & Harvey Morris, Penguin pounds 6.99. Comprehensive portrait of the cultural and historical background of the Kurdish people, tracing their origins, dynasties of the 10th century and betrayal by the Western powers' unpredictable Middle East policies, up to the aftermath of the Gulf War. Numbering some 16 million, split between five countries and welcome in none, the Kurds are here at last given a voice.

Storm Country by Pete Davies, Mandarin pounds 5.99. Travelling in a pick-up truck for 7,500 miles through 13 states, Davies arrives in the heart of America, where 'you realise you're more wonderfully, empty-headedly relaxed than you've ever been in your life', and makes a courageous attempt to get to the heart of Americans with his countless probing conversations. Almost as if an Englishman had dropped in on the townsfolk of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon.