BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
Dark Heart: The Shocking Truth About Hidden Britain by Nick Davies, Vintage pounds 7.99. The echoes of Conrad in the title are deliberate and to the point: it's a jungle out there. This is an audit of life at the bottom of the pile in modern Britain, more terrifying than any fiction: 11-year- old rentboys, 15-year-old girls working as dominatrixes, entire families wired on crack, sink estates where thieving and twocking are the principal leisure activities, and anybody who talks to the police faces being burned out of their house. Davies' book is a slap in the face for anybody who thinks that social exclusion is just a Blairite buzzword or that poverty doesn't exist in this country (and it makes the idea of economic "trickledown" look like a sick joke). But what he pinpoints is not just material need, but a famine of the spirit: there are parts of society where ideas of right and wrong have become perverted, where children are being gradually but thoroughly unfitted for life in a civilised society. Perhaps you could conclude from this, like Conrad's Kurtz: "Exterminate all the brutes!" Davies takes the more compassionate line that what is needed is a commitment by the government to tackling unemployment, and a realisation that every attempt to wean young people off "welfare dependency" is a recruitment drive for the crack and prostitution industries. It's heartening to see Jack Straw's endorsement ("This book should be required reading"); on the other hand, you'd be hard put to name any Labour policies that show any real understanding of the horrors Davies describes.

! The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain Volume One 660- 1649 by N A M Rodger, HarperCollins pounds 9.99. A hundred years ago, Sir William Laird Clowes could write a History of the Royal Navy that started before the Roman conquest of Britain, a good 1,500 years before anything you could remotely describe as a Royal Navy existed. Rodger is more scrupulous with his terms - hence this successor project is entitled A Naval History of Britain. But it's more than an account of naval activity in these islands; Rodger refracts the whole history of Britain through a naval lens, and while sometimes he pushes too far - if the Norman kings had appreciated naval power, he implies, Anglo-Irish relations would have been healthy and happy ever after - he forces the reader to rethink some basic facts. You can't even take the boundaries between land and sea for granted: in an age when boats were smaller and rivers more navigable, naval power extended far inland, with naval blockades of the Isle of Ely and Viking fleets on the River Lea.

The New Life by Orhan Pamuk, Faber pounds 6.99. A young man reads a book and his life is transformed: he falls in love, leaves home and sets out on a long trek around Turkey, seeking out bus crashes and the moment of clarity they offer; he takes on a new identity and is drawn into a mysterious conspiracy. Pamuk's enigmatic parable, populated by angels and knowing strangers, was apparently the fastest-selling novel in Turkish history, a fact that ought to confound Midnight Express-style stereotypes of the country. There are unmistakable overtones of Borges and Kafka, and it is plastered with references to Rilke and (of course) Dante, as well as western popular culture. The parameters of reality are constantly shifting, illusion and the supernatural obtruding, so that the reader can never quite settle to what's going on; the result is scary and paranoid, and recommended only for readers with a firm grip on their psyches.

! Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons, Virago pounds 5.99. Selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club, apparently, which should give you a few clues to the general tone (adversity overcome, moral uplift, warmth, etc). This is a kind of white-trash The Color Purple: 10-year-old Ellen watches as her drunken, brutal father terrorises and in effect murders her ailing mother; a happy interlude living with a teacher from her school is interrupted when her mother's mother drags her away, and puts her to work in the cotton- fields; but she emerges from all this unbowed, her joie de vivre shining through, her innocence penetrating the hypocrisy around her. It's amusing and readable, and might well be touching if any of it stood up to a moment's examination.

King Suckerman by George P Pelecanos, Serpent's Tail pounds 8.99, paperback original. A deeply noir Seventies-set thriller, in which a couple of Washington DC ne'er-do-wells mistakenly cross swords with a mean black killer and his psycho-billy henchman. The continual, rather pedantic references to pop-culture of the period (you can tell when a character is doomed, because he likes Bachman Turner Overdrive) get wearing, and the moralising denouement is muffed, but Pelecanos has a courageously unblinking eye for violence and its consequences.

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