Books: Paperbacks

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Beatniks by Toby Litt, Vintage pounds 5.99. Toby Litt's first novel is an anglicised version of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. But Litt's "English road movie" doesn't open on to the widescreen vista of Kerouac's classic novel. England is too small an island for the grand gesture of taking to the road: "You drive to the edge, then all you do is stop ... Unless you go over the edge - into the sea." Litt focuses instead on the claustrophobia of the suburbs and the overheated imaginations of his trio of "angel-headed hipsters".

Finding themselves adrift in the cynical materialism of the Nineties, Jack, Neal and Mary pledge themselves to the code of Kerouac's "courage- teachers", and construct an imaginary world where, if you never take your shades off, you can make-believe it's 1966. Instead of succumbing to the fictions spun by advertising, they attempt a more recherche lifestyle. When the Beat conceit starts to flag, Litt throws in sexual manipulation and a range of power-games that imprison the threesome in a beach-front semi-detached. His astute characterisation ensures that their emotional stratagems fuel the story's tension whilst remaining just about credible, and his fierce satire of popular culture provides the edge.

Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin, Penguin pounds 7.99. When asked to provide biographical details about the recently dead novelist, Henry Austen declared, "My dear Sisters [sic] life was not a life of events." Claire Tomalin has the not-so-difficult task of proving the opposite. The Austen family were remarkable: Tomalin tells us about the elderly aunt arrested for shop-lifting a skein of lace, and threatened with transportation to Australia; a glamorous cousin who married a French count (beheaded during the Revolution); and a handicapped, aristocratic neighbour imprisoned and tortured by his wife in their castle. "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery," Jane Austen wrote, and so she concentrated instead on producing some of the greatest satires in the English language. Whereas other biographers have exercised their readers with accounts of Austen's putative lesbianism (incestuous, to boot) and her retarded brother, callously shunted off to another village, Tomalin places Austen in her proper context: provincial, Regency England. The events may be minor, but Tomalin extracts enough significance from them to shed much-needed light on this shadowy woman.

Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn, No Exit Press pounds 6.99. Huntington Beach, LA, is where all the sinister dudes and upfront chicks go to skim the perfect wave and reach the ultimate high. But the distinctly undudelike Ike Turner, hero of this "surf noir", goes there in search of his sister and the three men who may have murdered her.

Youthful exuberance is infinitely corruptible, and for a while, Ike is taken in by charismatic Hound Adams. But voodoo rites and snuff movies soon bring him back to his senses.

Nunn has done for surfing what Cormac McCarthy did for horse-riding. His ecstatic vision of gilded youth riding the Green Room, high on "righteous" grass, is tempered by the melancholic disposition of his simple, boyish hero. Just as Ike finds himself seduced by the slacker lifestyle, so will the reader just kick back and tap the source of the sea.

A Genius in the Family: An Intimate Memoir of Jacqueline du Pre by Hilary and Piers du Pre, Vintage pounds 7.99. Jacqueline du Pre, one of the icons of 20th-century classical music, has suffered the indignity of an adulterous- kiss-and-tell memoir written by her brother and sister. The Jackie myth is one of romantic suffering, but Hilary and Piers are having nothing of it. Their Jackie was a manipulative, scheming neurotic: "Many a male visitor would be alarmed by the greeting 'Fuck me'," they offer as evidence of the disintegration of their sister's personality after the onslaught of multiple sclerosis. But Hilary claims her sympathy was infinite -- even to the extent of lending her own husband to her younger sister for a (very suburban) menage-a-trois. If you want your Jackie serene and cerebral, wait for Elizabeth Wilson's study. If your tastes are more prurient, this has some wonderfully squirm-inducing detail.

Purple Homicide: Fear and Loathing on Knutsford Heath by John Sweeney, illus Martin Rowson, Bloomsbury pounds 7.99. When, on 2 May 1997, the Man in the White Suit conquered Tatton, thereby taking the fifth-safest Tory seat in the land, England cheered, contends reporter John Sweeney. Now this gushing admirer of Martin Bell MP, has written an account of that compelling election campaign. He has chosen to stylise his story as a pantomine, complete with colourful dramatis personae, which can be irritating (he doesn't quite pull it off). But Christine Hamilton makes a hilarious Lady Macbeth, and with characters like seven-foot transvestite Miss Moneypenny and Lord Biro Against Scallywag Tories, you can see the panto concept was irresistible. And it doesn't detract too much from the moral. We all knew about the sleaze, but Sweeney dug up some disturbing evidence of Neil Hamilton's neo-fascist connections. This is political satire that will outlive its topicality.

Bestiary: Selected stories by Julio Cortzar, Harvill pounds 10.99. Cortzar is one of the least-known but most influential voices in Latin American literature. He is best known for Hopscotch (1963), the first, and most daring "hypertext" novel, in which the reader is granted a truly collaborative role in the work of fiction. These short stories, however, are more traditional in form.

His characters are innocents; their only course is to follow the circumstances fate has set before them. And, as most of the stories were written under a military junta, political commentary is transformed into a delicate sense of the surreal. Each story treads a fine balance between the unspeakable and that which must be told. His stately but quiet sentences snake their way through nightmarish scenarios, in which charming sophisticates skate on the thin ice of their delusions.

Alberto Manguel is a devout admirer, as is Pablo Neruda, who professes: "Anyone who hasn't read Cortzar is doomed ... something similar to a man who has never tasted peaches. He would quietly become sadder, noticeably paler, and probably, little by little, he would lose his hair."

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