BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
Magic City by Jewell Parker Rhodes, Headline pbk original, pounds 6.99. Black American novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes writes about the Tulsa, Oklahoma, that her compatriots would rather forget. It's the 1920s, and the Ku Klux Klan, police corruption and casual racism are endemic. Joe Samuels is a young black man who dreams of being the next Houdini, and Mary Keane, is a white girl offered by her father to the first man who turns up at their farm, in order to keep the family business going. When she takes an elevator ride with the hapless Joe, and faints, the locals accuse him of rape. When the lynch mob forms, Mary must emerge from a lifetime of passivity to convince them of Joe's innocence. Although issues of race, gender and self-discovery are explored, Rhodes is more concerned with the crafting of character and the power of myth. Dreams and ghosts insinuate themselves into the novel's exposition, enhancing the nightmarish quality of a series of terrifying scenarios.

Violet by Jessica Douglas-Home, Harvill pounds 7.99. Violet Gordon Woodhouse was a brilliant musician born to a respectable upper-middle-class establishment in 1871. After a gilded childhood, in which her musical talent was nurtured and her ego lovingly massaged, she was told by her mother of the horrors of marital sex. She determined never to marry, but soon realised that a husband (at any rate, a rich one) was necessary if she was to pursue a musical career. Her force of personality ensured that the subsequent menage a cinq, financed by the doting, undemanding Gordon Woodhouse, attracted no censure. She confined her talent to private soirees attended by the likes of Bertrand Russell, Stravinsky, Rudyard Kipling, Diaghilev and the Sitwells, but luckily recordings of her clavichord arrangements survive. On her death, Gordon and her four other "widowers" received a letter of condolence from George Bernard Shaw. This acclaimed biography (by her great-niece) restores to her rightful place as one of the century's most fascinating women.

The Virtuoso by Margriet de Moor, trs Ina Rilke, Picador pounds 6.99. This topped the bestseller lists throughout Europe after de Moor's first novel won the Dutch equivalent of the Booker Prize. De Moor is a musician by training, and her prose is pierced with musical inflections. Ina Rilke has served her well in recreating the fragile, courtly gaiety that sustains this slight romance. The setting is 18th-century Naples, and the virtuoso is Gasparo, a plump, cherubic castrato who bewitches Carlotta, our refined yet lascivious narrator, with his singing. An elegantly sexy bodice-ripper is what ensues (for the record, Carlotta's is a "tight-fitting, cherry- red" little number). Hooks fly open and garters snap, but when passion exhausts itself, the formal perfection of music persists. So, although Gasparo lacks the requisite emotional and physical equipment for an enduring relationship, there'll always be another barnstorming night at the opera.

Head Over Heels by Suzanne Moore, Penguin pounds 7.99. "Get your opinions here," says the Guardian, for whom Suzanne Moore used to write her pithy, opinionated and perceptive columns - adjectives which, it has to be said, depend on what she's writing about and whether you agree with her. Two defining moments here are the James Bulger murder case - which caused a crisis of collective self-examination - and Hugh Grant's escapade with Divine, which says a lot about the range of subjects Moore's prepared to tackle.

Selected Stories by Alice Munro, Vintage pounds 6.99. Alice Munro has been described as the greatest living short-story writer. This collection covers three decades of her stories, most of which draw on the humble province of childhood experiences, memory and oral history. Every shade of smalltown life is explored with unnerving clarity. She combines poetry with social history, and is a master of her form while remaining a servant to her characters. She is beautifully concise, because descriptive prose and themes flow from the viewpoint of her characters, and transcendent because truths emerge in a "landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know."

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