Books: Paperback roundup

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The Collected Stories by John McGahern, Faber pounds 8.99. This dense volume brings together all of John McGahern's short fiction, fully revised, in a definitive text. McGahern has long been recognised as a master of the short story, and he has lived too long in the shadow of his contemporaries. Sex and death in all their prosaic ugliness underlie the erotic adventures of his plain-speaking pilgrims. His stories concern themselves with the inner journeys of the little people - and by this I don't mean leprechauns - in remote Irish communities; morose fathers, resentful sons, a timorous widower besieged by predatory women; a God-fearing brickie who expresses himself through profanities. Each is forced to come to terms with his or her mortality within a few pages of deftly written, tersely detailed prose. Casual details such as "the solidity of the bones of her hips gave promise of a rich seed-bed" offer a glimpse into the secret lives of passers- by. The sexual guilt that Catholicism endorses pervades each mournful narrative which is yet enlivened by the grim absurdity of it all. One man's bid for suicide is disastrously interrupted when the branch he has hung himself from breaks, and he falls into the river "roaring for help" below: "No use drowning naturally if you'd meant to hang yourself in the first place." Each sentence is a tightly sung ref-rain that gathers pace for its conclusion, and the momentum builds to carry each story to an ending where the essential truth of things is momentarily revealed.

Violin by Anne Rice, Arrow pounds 5.99. After her international success with Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice introduces Stefan, her latest hunk of a ghost. Part-incubus, part-inspiration, he appears in 19th-century violinist guise to the recently bereaved Triana. Like her creator, Triana is one of four sisters from a Catholic family, she is in her fifties, her alcoholic mother has just died, and her daughter is long dead from leukaemia. So Triana is ripe for a spot of ectoplasmic romance. Back they waltz to old Vienna, where Triana, inspired by her mesmeric mentor, becomes an international virtuoso. But it's not all plain-scraping. Oh no, deep down, she is haunted by the fear that her gift may be illusory. Writing in a pseudo-mystical style, Rice is let down by her clumsy syntax and inability to deal effectively with anachronisms, such as the answerphone, which continually (and comically) intrudes on Triana's spiritual communion with Stefan (a wannabe-Heathcliff). This ambitious tale of the savagery beneath the glittering salons of Vienna is inspired, we are told, by Rice's passion for Beethoven. How he would have laughed.

The Sewing Circle: Hollywood's Greatest Secret by Axel Madsen, Robson pounds 8.99. The time has come for all the men who have ever swooned over Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck to eat their hearts out. For these exalted women were apparently members of the secret lesbian society known as the "Sewing Circle". Hollywood chronicler Alex Madsen has written an affectionate study of the public lives and furtive appetites of some of the great female legends of the cinema. Sexual ambiguity was permissible on the screen - think tomboyish Katharine Hepburn, and insolent Barbara Stanwyck - but same-sex liaisons were out. This gave rise to the "lavender" marriages of women like Stanwyck and Crawford, who both ended up with alcoholic wife-beaters, and who, as neighbours in the early Thirties, sought comfort in each other. The key player, though, is Mercedes de Acosta, mysterious poet-playwright and lover of Garbo and Dietrich, and to whose breasts Isadora Duncan wrote an ode. This is not an exercise in prurience, Madsen provides an enlightened account of a unique group of women who relished the romance of secrecy but lived in fear of exposure.

Sister Josephine by Joanna Traynor, Bloomsbury pounds 9.99. First-time novelist Joanna Traynor won the Saga Prize (awarded to British black novelists) for this autobiographical story of a "gobby", orphaned child fostered out to a white-trash family with little love to give their own children, let alone a confused, four-year-old black girl. When people ask Josephine where she's from, she sets their curious minds sunbathing under the Caribbean sky, but really she has no idea. Traynor pushes her fragile heroine to the depths of misery and hardship, in searing prose that finds no room for self-pity. She leaves her with a battered sense of self and dignity miraculously intact.

Time Out Book of London Walks: Thirty Walks by 30 London Writers edited by Andrew White, Penguin pounds 9.99. Every one of these routes has been scrupulously checked at least twice, its editor assures us, so that public houses of interest (never mind blue-plaque sites and historical buildings) can be visited. Clearly, the contributors feel that Londoners cannot walk half a mile without a pint. This is the London of novelists (Margaret Drabble), agony aunts (Irma Kurtz) and comedians (Graham Norton). Our own Martin Rowson takes the reader on a deeply personal cartoon voyage around Lewisham and St John's. He points out "the emerging exo-skeleton of yer actual Millennium Dome", takes us past a house full of enormous tabby cats, and into the offy where he once spotted Timothy Spall. If you're lucky, you'll spot "the 1-legged man walking his dog" on Hilly Fields, and if you're not lucky, you'll end up in Dog-Shit Lane. Meanwhile Nicholas Royle follows the trail of the late, out-of-print novelist Derek Marlowe whose ghost haunts the streets of Pimlico and Mayfair. This is classic Sixties London, all seedy bookshops, bespoke tailors and "grey- flannelled Westminster School boys". With Philip Ziegler expounding on bourgeois Holland Park, Janet Street-Porter enthusing over artsy-crafty Clerkenwell, this is the perfect book to curl up with over a steaming cup of tea and a hot radiator.

Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes by Eamon Duffy, Yale UP pounds 12.95. With its lavish illustrations and avoidance of ecclesiastical terminology, Eamon Duffy's is the definitive layperson's guide to papal history. He can talk theology with the best of them, but clearly and entertainingly so. His aim is to enlighten, and leave the reader in a position to judge the achievements or otherwise of the long march of pontiffs that leads to John Paul. He also tells us why popes do so love being fanned by ostrich feathers.

Lilian Pizzichini