Books in Brief

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The Independent Culture
A Different Sea by Claudio Magris, trs M S Spurr, Harvill pounds 12.99. In isolated, ocean-torn Patagonia, Enrico confronts the glass universe with desireless impassivity, fearing and demanding nothing. His return to the Adriatic alters perception; in Thirties and Forties Europe there is something incomplete in a man ascribing compassion to value-systems and defining love as a having, not a being, verb. 'Teach me to care and not to care'; Enrico dies grasping only one arm of that paradox. A slim but satisfying novel of ideas from the author of Danube. Verity Mason

A Mirror for Larks by Victor Sage, Secker pounds 9.99. Slow-moving novel narrated by Raymond, an ex-public school wide-boy who hasn't managed to make money on the turf. He and his girlfriend Zonda are lured into an international credit scam by an Irish-American fraudster. The novel develops through a morass of negotiations with dubious banking contacts and Third World royalty, all conducted in bars, restaurants and hotels. Raymond finds himself footing the bill, but it is Zonda who pays the ultimate price. There is too much of everything in this novel: the turf talk, the money talk, even the comedy could all have been sharper. Leslie Wilson

Fatlands by Sarah Dunant, Hamish Hamilton pounds 14.99. A second outing for Hannah Wolfe, the private investigator. A Chandleresque narrator like Hannah knows that rich, pouting, unhappy 14-year-old girls spell one thing. But when it hits, it's worse than usual - two-thirds of the family deleted. Dad's work seems to be the problem; cancer research is not popular with animal liberationists and in the past he bred a better pig. Hannah investigates; no way are these piglings bland, they're b-i-g. Health and wealth for all? Hannah needs to wise up before she becomes a very late presenter of the show. Pharmaceuticals, farming and fanaticism are your topical tips to unravelling the mystery. Verity Mason

Afghan Stories bv Oleg Yermakov, trs Marc Romano, Secker pounds 8.99. Ten unsparing stories by a young writer who served in the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Yermakov writes in terse and sometimes blazing prose about the conscripts' lives, about casual atrocity, the hallucinatory moments of conflict, the different ordeal of the women who wait and the patriotism of stay-at- home apparatchiks. Above all, he writes about Russia and its countryside with passionate lyricism. The soldiers' dialogue doesn't translate well, but the voice is fresh and authoritative, and, for all their anger, there is at the centre of these stories a great gentleness. Anita Mason

The Centre of the Labyrinth by Philip Lloyd- Bostock, Quartet pounds 16.95. The late author might have appreciated the thought that his only novel is four parts logorrhoea to one part gonorrhoea (or rather, that sinister sibling, Aids). His gay protagonist, Jerome, enjoys a joke against himself; he may, he muses, be 'the worst cruiser since the General Belgrano', but more than jokes, he loves words. Just as each word suggests to his vast erudition some classical, biblical, literary, historical or filmic allusion, so each sexual partner suggests the next. Poignantly, Jerome/Lloyd-Bostock need not have been so wary of dull confinement; the final quarter, devoted to his dying, pares away rococo excesses; his courage and chivalry shine the brighter, and he commands all his reader's sympathy. Verity Mason