Books: Paperbacks

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by Brian Hoey,

Pan, pounds 5.99,


It is unlikely that anyone sufficiently interested in the Princess Royal to buy a book about her will be disappointed by Hoey's starry-eyed hagiography, though all but the most ardent fan will be bemused by his bizarre suggestion "What price President in the 21st century?" Sadly, this horsey Hanoverian is simply not a very interesting subject. Hoey pads out his account with eight pages taken directly from the programme of her visit to the Falklands, while another 16 pages are filled with 186 official appointments (the princess is an Honorary Member of the Reliant Owners' Club). Hoey must be cursing that Zara's tongue-stud appeared after his book went to press.


by Rabih Alameddine,

Abacus, pounds 9.99, 245pp

Death is never very far away in Rabih Alameddine's unsettling first novel about the impact of Aids and the Lebanese civil war on a circle of friends and family. Told in a series of fragmented snatches - letters, diaries, news wire stories and dreams - the book's narrator switches between memories of a Seventies childhood in sophisticated, but bombed to pieces Beirut, and his new life as an acclaimed abstract artist in liberated San Francisco. When Mohammed contracts Aids, it seems he has just exchanged one over-complicated existence for another. It's a relief when the four horses of the Apocalypse finally ride into view. A moving and angry book.

Courtesans and Fishcakes

by James Davidson,

Fontana, pounds 9.99, 372pp

Probing the byways of Ancient Greek literature, this study received a rapturous welcome for a simple reason. It is almost entirely concerned with eating and sex. We learn that the Greeks were obsessed by fish. Like sashimi eaters, they particularly prized the belly cut of tuna. On the sexual front, they enjoyed an equally rich cornucopia. An inventive linking called "Lion on the Cheese-Grater" was just one of 12 positions offered by an adept professional. It should also be born in mind that, despite being richly entertaining, Davidson's is a serious academic study which puts the boot into Michel Foucault and Kenneth Dover in no uncertain way.

Midnight Feast

by Martina Evans,

Vintage, pounds 6.99, 243pp

Even if you've lost your appetite for the school of eating-disorder fiction, don't pass up Martina Evans's novel about growing up thin in an Irish convent. Grace Jones, the book's narrator, is a serious-minded 15-year-old more enamoured of pear drops and salty crisps than pop music and boys. But spurred on by her best friend, the "brilliantly" thin and capricious Colette, she renounces her love of sweets for the more thrilling pleasures of calorie-burning, cold baths and, with a little persuasion, some spine-tingling sessions under the dormitory sheets. A smartly written first novel (with a terrifying ending) proving that Evans knows more about adolescent girls than most of us care to remember.


by Alan Massie,

Sceptre, pounds 6.99, 213pp

Massie's fiction lacks the cinematic sweep and narrative thrust of Ross Leckie's best-selling gore-fest Hannibal. Set amid the endless intrigues following the murder of Caesar, the story is messily related, with the first person switching between Mark Antony and his secretary Critias. A hero gone to seed, Antony is a credibly flawed protagonist, but Massie's colloquial dialogue fails to convince. We are introduced to Cleopatra via the quaint aside: "That Egyptian bint isn't going to disgorge." After informing us that her "wit was undeniable", Critias admits "I can't actually recall any clever or memorable thing she said". An unfortunate failing in a narrator.

Moab is my Washpot

by Stephen Fry,

Arrow, pounds 6.99, 434pp

More enjoyable than his novels (which are pretty enjoyable), Stephen Fry's readable and wise autobiography covers his first 20 years - from StartRite-clad school boy to sophisticated habitue of Norwich's answer to cafe society: "Just John's Delicatique". Although he finally fulfills his parents' hopes of an Oxbridge place, Fry puts everyone around him, but particularly himself, through a bit of hell en route. The book includes some wonderful photographs of baby Fry and his lugubrious-looking Austro- Hungarian grandfather, and a farting organ joke that brings tears to the eyes. Good all-round advice on growing up "poovey" but happy.

Truth: a history and a guide for the perplexed

by Felipe


Black Swan, pounds 6.99, 257pp

Unwearied by his epic history of the Millennium, the Oxford historian- polymath takes on an even grander challenge. This deceptively small book allows that the long quest for truth does have a richly varied history and geography (so pipe down, you rigid Fundamentalists). Yet it eloquently shows that the search is worth the trouble, and that no human being can genuinely be a "relativist" (so back off, you woozy Deconstructionists). Fernndez-Armesto steers a humane middle course between these two cardinal errors of our time. With a light touch and eclectic sources, he argues that "Every time we take notice of each other... we get a little closer to truth".

The Key of the Tower

by Gilbert Adair,

Vintage, pounds 6.99, 175pp

Cineaste, obituarist and Francophile, Gilbert Adair has now turned his hand to thriller writing. When a French country road is blocked by a fallen tree, two drivers are stopped in their tracks: Guy Lantern, an English tourist, and Jean-Marc Charet, a French art dealer with a cross- channel ferry to catch. With no help at hand, the two men have no alternative but to scale the uprooted tree, swap cars, and continue on their separate journeys. Veering somewhat perilously between a Patricia Highsmith novel and an episode of Some Mothers Do Have 'Em, Adair's narrative follows the hapless Guy as drives towards St Malo, off a cliff, and into the arms of another man's wife.

The Footnote

by Anthony Grafton,

Faber, pounds 7.99, 242pp

Though an appealingly whimsical topic for a scholarly disquisition, Grafton's monograph is dull beyond words. While devoting almost half his book to the use of the footnote by the tedious 19th-century historian Leopold von Ranke, nowhere does Grafton mention the wonderfully inventive use of this device in Nabokov's excellent Pale Fire. For all his excruciating pedantry, Grafton is inaccurate in his statement that "In Germany, unlike the US and England, the books in large university libraries are usually stored in order of acquisition." In fact, this is exactly how books are stored at both Oxford and Cambridge. On no account be tempted to acquire The Footnote yourself.

Ahead of its Time

edited by Duncan McLean,

Vintage, pounds 5.99, 244pp

Irvine Welsh, like Robert Burns before him, has once more made Scots vernacular the literary lingo of choice. But, as the Orkney-based writer and editor Duncan McLean points out in his introduction to this lively anthology of contemporary Scottish writers, Welsh isn't the only practitioner of the Muirhouse tongue. From novelists Janice Galloway, James Kelman and Alan Warner to poets Alison Flett and Alison Kermack, the selection includes as varied a collection of characters as you could hope to meet. But, be warned, McLean's own story about a telephone box filled with ribbon-tied thistles is as pretty as it gets.