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Osbert Sitwell

by Philip Ziegler,

Pimlico, pounds 14,

461pp

SCARCELY READ now, Sir Osbert was the most talented of the Sitwell trio. Yet even Ziegler is lukewarm about his poetry, while Sir Osbert deliberately made his autobiography, inexplicably a bestseller, "old-fashioned and extravagant". So why did this lacklustre talent attract one of the best biographers around? Moving in the irresistible milieu of Waugh and Connolly, Sitwell displayed an oddly contrary character, combining aggression and racism with generosity and tenderness. Despite his bluff facade he wrote to his male lover "without you, even life is death".

The House Gun

by Nadine Gordimer,

Bloomsbury, pounds 6.99, 292pp

HARALD AND Claudia are white middle-class professionals whose world is smashed to pieces when their only son is arrested for murder. More interested in mapping the shock waves that reverberate through their marriage than in the courtroom drama, Gordimer describes with exactitude every nuance of the couple's relationship as they search for explanations. This is the new South Africa, and the boy's parents (apathetic liberals) find themselves in the hands of a black attorney - the convincingly drawn Hamilton Motsami.

The World and Other Places

by Jeanette Winterson,

Vintage, pounds 6.99, 230pp

A BOOK of take-offs with an occasional crash landing. All are a joy to read, but sometimes the debts in Winterson's glittering fictional fragments are a little obvious. A hybrid of Swift and Calvino, "Turn of the World" concerns an imaginary island where "the richest women wear coal necklaces... while modest people sit by their fires, poking their diamonds." But the feather-light "Poetics of Sex" could be by no one else: "Beneath the sheets we practise Montparnasse, that is Picasso offers to paint me but we have sex instead." Picasso, of course, is female.

Delphinium Blues

by Stevie Morgan,

Hodder, pounds 9.99, 282pp

WHEN HER husband leaves her for a course in "Advanced Shagging" with a young redhead, Jess is left with two children, a huge mortgage and a very pretty cottage garden. Based on her Independent column "Beloved and Bonk", Stevie Morgan's comic novel about surviving the first year of divorce breathes with a chatty intimacy. Good tips on how to avoid membership of the local "deserted wives club" and look soignee at the school gate. Before you can say "decree nisi", Morgan's eco-friendly heroine gets her life back on track.

Araby by Gretta Mulrooney, Flamingo, pounds 6.99, 183pp

RORY KEENAN has spent his life being embarrassed by his loud Irish mother - an enormous woman who sang out loud on buses and dressed her family in charity shop cast-offs. Now on her death bed, she is every bit as annoying, loudly requesting boiled eggs and ham and making rude remarks about the other patients on the ward. Beseiged by memories of his Sixties childhood, Rory tries to pull together the few remaining strands of family history. A pleasure to read, this unsentimental London-Irish novel bristles with uncomfortable moments between mother and son.

A Defence of Masochism

by Anita Phillips,

Faber, pounds 6.99, 165pp

SKATING ON thin ice, Phillips views masochism as self-abegnation, catharsis, replacing "bad blood with new blood". It is not the opposite of sadism: "The perfect choice [of partner] may be another masochist." Her fetters do not prevent intellectual gymnastics. On page 15 she quotes Genet: "it is important to get down into the dirt", but this turns out to be a metaphor on page 130, where she advocates bathing as part of the masochistic ritual "to purify the ego". Roping in such unlikely supporters as St Theresa and Simone Weil, the argument is more vertiginous than seductive.

Little Sister

by Carol Birch,

Virago, pounds 6.99, 278pp

BEING AN ageing hippy in the north of England doesn't sound too jolly, if Carol Birch's latest novel is anything to go by. Cathy Wren, writer of children's books, is eating a plate of Havarti cheese and contemplating suicide when she receives the news that her younger sister is dying from Aids. Even when it comes to death, it seems, her sister is going to pip her to the post. Just where the oddly named Veronica Karen has chosen to die is a mystery, though, and Cathy, accompanied by her sister's old boyfriend, is forced to tour the surrounding hills and dales in her orange Mini in search of her.

The Spiritual Tourist

by Mick Brown,

Bloomsbury, pounds 7.99, 308pp

BROWN STARTS his gnostic wanderings in north London, where he visits a swami who generates quantities of vibhuti, a powdery ectoplasm. It is hard to disagree with the pithy view of Brown's companion, a singer he calls Van: "What a fookin' joker." This is by way of preamble to a prowl round the great spiritual supermarket of India. The author's search is genuine, but he never leaves his appraising intelligence behind. Visiting a guru called Sai Baba, Brown declares himself "purified", but in the next paragraph he feels "betrayed, foolish". A deeply felt, superbly crafted account.

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