BOOKS / New novels and stories in brief

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The Independent Culture
Women of Influence by Bonnie Burnard, Women's Press pounds 5.99. Short story collections can be disappointingly fragmented; not so this first volume by an award-winning Canadian. In frontier regions community and obligation matter; the title story's heroine can say without irony, 'I went eagerly because I thought I should.' Woman/man, parent/child, pupil/teacher, the effect of one on the other fascinates Burnard. In the bleakest story the eponymous 'Model' has no human ties at all. Time and biology spare none, fortitude and love (not romance) count. Unashamed of a moral message, Burnard steers clear of sentimentality: skip the first story but enjoy the rest, not least for the echoes of another frontierswoman, Willa Cather. Verity Mason

The Talisman and other Tales by Viktoria Tokareva, trs Rosamund Bartlett, Picador 14.99. A boy who loves Chekhov brings people good luck. A jerky bus throws romance literally into a man's lap. An ageing postmistress chooses her pet chicken over the returned paramour who once got away. Though her droll novellas and stories are set in 1980s Moscow, Viktoria Tokareva eschews comment on the Reds and tunes in to those timeless Russian blues. Material goods loom large by virtue of their absence; a queue of sheepskin coats cold-shoulders the comrade in gaberdine. Snobbery will out; so will love, pathos and a bubble or two of fantasy. To say that Tokareva's characters are easy prey to daydreams, boredom and bickering is not to ignore their puckish grit and the prevailing dry humour. If there is a philosophy, it is stoicism: good moods follow bad moods 'not for any apparent reason but just to maintain the correct emotional balance'. Maggie Traugott

Music for Glass Orchestra by Grace Andreacchi, Serpent's Tail pounds 8.99. An elegant

roman a clef - and, unfortunately for the unmusical, that's the bass and treble clef. The hard-boiled, self-mocking female narrator saves her admiration for a church tower and her body for lachrymose violinist Stephane. He compares their life to a dream; she responds: 'Existential bullshit, fuck me if you want to, spare me the rest.' Surreal encounters all point to the same message: she must learn to put her hand in the fire - a metaphor, apparently, for surrendering to the truths articulated by the masterpieces (the Goldberg Variations, the Prague Symphony, Beethoven's G major sonata) Stephane plays. Oh for a good musical education. Verity Mason

Aquamarine by Carole Anshaw, Virago pounds 5.99. A sassy three-part enquiry into how the split- second decisions of youth may be regretted at leisure in middle age. From three alternative 1990 futures Jesse Austin plunges her thoughts back to the 1968 Mexico Olympics when the gold medal for 100-metre free-style was snatched by an Australian minx who also snatched her heart. In one variation Jesse is married and pregnant at 40 in her Missouri home town, though infatuated with a skywriter half her age and not her husband. Alternatively, Jesse followed those first sexual yearnings, became a lesbian English professor in New York and now brings her actress lover home to see her mother, who is unnerved to have the 'homewrecker' from her TV hospital soap in her godfearing house. Or, finally, is Jesse the veteran of 'a truly stupid marriage', mother of two with a failing Florida swimming business and a yen to seek out that Australian minx once and for all? Adapting to each of the Jesses, the background characters - a besotted godmother, a mentally challenged brother, a patience-challenging mother - boost the pleasure. Maggie Traugott

Peculiar Politics by Katia Spiegelman, Marion Boyars pounds 13.95. The La Ronde re-make for the sex 'n' suing thirtysomethings. Cue Richard Gere to play Hanky, attorney at Dick, Lesser & Moore; will he succeed in protecting the 'good' name of transvestite Mike Mauvais? Can he get back into bed with true love Dawny (cue Julia Roberts) who, against his wishes, is publishing Mike's biography? Who will free Hanky from Chris (pass on the casting), the savage bitch who calls him 'Poopsie poo'? Can Dawny's friend Kath sleep with enough men to drive Jack into monogamy? This is tongue-in-

cheek Mary Wesley romantic comedy minus the zimmer frame and frothing agreeably forward to a nail-biting wedding finale. Verity Mason

The Cyclopean Mistress by Peter Redgrove, Bloodaxe pounds 7.95. This collection of short fictions, dreamlike, lyrical, largely set in Cornwall, is rich reading, and, though beautifully written, rather indigestible. As the jacket promises, Redgrove often withdraws the narrative scaffolding. Some of the pieces are haunting, and where the author does discipline his material into narrative it is oblique and oddly satisfying, as in the opening sections, or the sequence about Dr Lucky, whose powers of healing go beyond what is usually expected. Elsewhere, it's a nice point whether writing can be called fiction just because it isn't factual. Too often this collection succeeds only in being incomprehensible. Leslie Wilson

Campion's Ghost: The Sacred and Profane Memories of John Donne, Poet by Garry O'Connor, Hodder pounds 15.99. O'Connor deplores 'the disastrous suppression of the Catholic spirit in English literature', that tension between sin and redemption which he admires in the novels of Graham Greene. Donne interests him as

the hero torn between preferment / patriotism / Protestantism and spirituality / care of his soul / Catholicism. The conscience-colloquies of this fictionalised Donne seem rather precious, and it is odd to have Edmund Campion's martyred ghost haunting Donne in the guise of the Scarlet Pimpernel-ish Sir Jasper Underhill. But O'Connor is acute on the psychological bonds linking tormentor and victim, and also turns in a chilling portrait of Gloriana. Verity Mason

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