Books: Paperbacks

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The Independent Culture
Spin Cycle

by Howard Kurtz,

Pan, pounds 6.99, 356pp

THOUGH IT'S the Presidential mug on the cover, the anti-hero of this probe into the Clinton propaganda machine is White House spinmeister Mike McCurry. During several mini-scandals, we see him practising his dark arts of exclusion, stonewalling and divide-and-rule upon the press corps. But as Kurtz, media reporter of the Washington Post, points out, the Monica business showed "the limits of spin", when even McCurry had to admit he was "out of the loop". It is interesting to note the high regard in which Kurtz holds the UK press: "a rumour would start in some British newspaper and make its way up the media food chain".

A Perfect Wife

by Christina Odone,

Phoenix, pounds 6.99, 217pp

THE HEROINE of Christina Odone's second novel - a milky-skinned columnist with Nigella Lawson hair, a successful husband and a fridge full of Parma ham and fruit tarts - thinks she is blissfully happy. But when her journalist husband starts an affair, Nina is forced to re-examine her once perfect marriage. In her search for answers, she is drawn to the Chelsea church of The Rev Alexander - a charismatic priest anxious to raise the profile of his well-heeled flock with some favourable media coverage. Not a patch on Amanda Craig's A Vicious Circle, but an entertaining satire on London's media world.

T S Eliot: an imperfect life

by Lyndall Gordon,

Vintage, pounds 8.99, 721pp

GORDON'S INSIGHTFUL portrait of T S Eliot does not shirk the violent mysogyny of his juvenilia or the anti-semitism of his early published work. In defence, Gordon says that Eliot's greatness reveals itself "in a struggle with certain flaws in his nature". The book's highlights are Gordon's use of biographical detail to elucidate the opacities of The Waste Land and Four Quartets. Though the poet "seemed to shake off a lifetime's habit of introversion" with a late, happy marriage, he emerges as essentially unknowable. As Gordon admits: "Eliot will always remain master of his biography, revealing and concealing with the utmost calculation."

Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed?

by Emma Davison,

Oriel, pounds 5.99, 338pp

EMMA DAVISON'S Notting Hill-based thriller will appeal to anyone suffering from real-estate envy. Young estate agent Martin Leak is so taken by some of the properties on his books (the polished wooden floors, leafy views and designer kitchens) that he treats them as his own, entertaining his girlfriends in borrowed beds and under borrowed showers. The possibility of discovery only adds to his excitement. But then a body turns up in one of the flats, and Martin's games come to a sudden end. The perfect scenario for a Carlton TV drama, Davison (author of Catwalk and The Game) knows the appeal of W11 locations and designer sex.

South Wind Through the Kitchen: the best of Elizabeth David

Penguin, pounds 7.99, 384pp

LIKE A dinner of hors d'oeuvres, the items in this anthology selected by friends and followers are individually excellent but fail to coalesce into a satisfying meal. The best of the snippets - Elizabeth David's celebrated appreciation of a no-frills restaurant in the Ardeche and her paean to the scientific gastronome de Pomiane - originally appeared as articles. Some extracts work well, such as her painful attempt to cook Christmas pudding in the Aegean, taken from Spices, Salt and Aromatics. But it is doubtful if David, who was nothing if not thorough, would have approved of this piecemeal approach.

The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman

by Bruce Robinson,

Bloomsbury, pounds 6.99, 278pp

THIRTEEN-YEAR-old Thomas Penman is in a pickle. Nursing a turd as large as a potato in the seat of his school trousers, he is sent to the headmaster's office for a dressing-down. Stopping en route to dispose of the "agricultural mess", he is caught out in the girls' lavatory. Peculiar memories, indeed. Bruce Robinson - the cult screenwriter of Withnail and I and The Killing Fields - follows Thomas as he tries to escape his parents' strange household and the horrors of a Fifties adolescence. Grotesquely lyrical and very funny, his first novel never pauses for breath.

Sex Tips for Girls

by Cynthia Heimel,

Arrow, pounds 5.99, 208pp

WASH YOUR hair every day, never sleep with a man you don't know ("It's like eating a semi-ripe mango"), and many other tips that could have saved Ms Lewinsky a fortune in cleaning bills. Fifteen years after its first publication, New Yorker Heimel's guide to taking your clothes off in front of the opposite sex ("So what if you have lumpy knees or strange tits. Some of the best girls do"), has stood the test of time rather better than shoulder pads and Filofaxes. Chapter Two - a day in the life of a Manhattan singleton - sounds uncannily like the inspiration for Bridget Jones' Diary.

The Last Cowboy

by Jane Kramer,

Pimlico, pounds 9, 148pp

FIRST PUBLISHED in the New Yorker in 1977, this remarkable work of reportage is cast in the form of a Western novel. Kramer's protagonist is Henry Blanton, a Texan wrangler who strives to fulfil the image of the mythic cowboy. He drinks whisky, beats up hippies, and offers scant comfort to his wife: "This country's good for a man and a cow, honey, but it's always been hell on a mule or a woman". The 20th century catches up with Henry when he receives a command to dispose of the herd that he manages. In a showdown between myth and agribusiness, there's only one winner.


by Erica Wagner,

Granta, pounds 6.99, 231pp

ERICA WAGNER'S best stories describe difficult moments in middle- class girlhoods. In "Stealing", a girl defies her bird-like mother by filling up on pizza on her way home from school, while the more sinister "A Simple Question" recounts an intense friendship between two girls that ends 15 years on in a moonlit amphitheatre in Arles. It's only in the title story that Wagner loses her footing. This account of an astronomer's relationship with a colleague is interspersed with some overly poetic passages about quantum mechanics, atoms and the freewheeling nature of love.

Dear Annie

by Annalisa Barbieri,

Faber, pounds 9.99, 259pp

THE Dear Annie column in this paper's Sunday sister does more than answer readers' clothing queries, it also deals with traumas in short order. A 21-year-old whose colleague complains about her short skirts is told: "Oh yes, and what does she look like? A sumo wrestler, I'll bet." Annie's excellent philosophy is: "Buy it, do it, eat it". But there are limits: "If I achieve one thing through this column, it will be the eradication of swirly, lacy tights". Whether you're "5ft 2in size 8 with a 32DD bust" or "20 stone and desperately need an Irish tailor", dash out and buy this book. You'll laugh your socks off.