Books: Paperbacks

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The Man Who Was Late by Louis Begley, Picador pounds 5.99. Jack Begley's writer-narrator tells the life-story of his college friend Ben, an intellectual misfit who, though ever punctual for his business meetings, is 'late in the major matters of existence' up to and including his own middle-age suicide. There are suggestions of homage to Anthony Powell and to Joseph Conrad in this meticulous, almost forensic examination of the character of a man who should have been a writer, but chose to sell his soul and his sensibility to banking. Only when he reads his friend's secret notebooks does Jack understand the depth of Ben's loneliness and the oddity of his existence. Begley squeezes the truth out slowly and carefully, like lemon juice.

The Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H G Wells by Michael Coren, Bloomsbury pounds 6.99. Coren claims he used to revere the chirpy author of Kipps but, while writing this book, he changed his mind. The result is the demonography of a man who believed (in his middle years and in Coren's words) that 'one half of the world's population would benefit by killing or enslaving the rest'. So Coren's proto-Nazi joins other, more familiar Wellses - the sexual hypocrite, the social climber, etc. Do these minus points throw an indelible taint over all his work? I think not, but Coren's deeply partial book is too angry to be concerned with detailed analysis.

Sing the Body Electric by Adam Lively, Vintage pounds 5.99. Imagine a machine that can convert your thoughts into music: a Walkman that plays your own body music back to you. In This satire on cultural politics (set in the late 21st century) explores the social effects of such an invention. are explored. Is it a revolutionary tool which can make an artist of everyone? Or merely another musical instrument, albeit one that requires exhausting dedication and talent to be played well? The plot may be a shade less vigorous than the ideas behind it, but Lively's writing does ample justice to his surname.

Foetal Attraction by Kathy Lette, Picador pounds 5.99. Popping like a firing range with snappy wordplay and throwaway satirical judgements, these are this novel concerns the adventures of Maddy Wolfe, an Oz girl on the make in London. Getting entangled with a married TV mogul, getting pregnant, getting dumped, shacking up with a loony right-on lesbian . . . she might be a sex-changed Bazza Mackenzie for the Nineties. As She takes a beating from Pom society pluckily, but with limited understanding: her wit is her revenge.

Murder in the Heart by Alexandra Artley, Penguin pounds 5.99. 'It's not enough to say that Tommy Thompson was a monster, a villain, a tyrant,' Artley tells her police contact as she embarks on this extraordinary piece of reporting. 'I need to know why.' The Thompsons looked like a poor but ordinary working-class family until Tommy was murdered by his two middle-aged daughters, each of them firing one shotgun charge into his chest while he was having suffering an epileptic fit. It was the culmination of four decades a lifetime of sexual abuse and sadism. by a father who terrorised his wife and daughters over four decades. Tommy Thompson's regime combined the harem with the army. He forced all his women to wear uniforms and his daughters gold wedding rings, betokening their slavery. There is no prurience and a lot of pain in these pages, yet they make compulsive reading.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, Vintage pounds 5.99. The traumas of which Stephen, the protagonist of this traditionally crafted historical novel, is made to bear are almost unbearable. First An intensely erotic youthful love affair is brutally curtailed; then, as an infantry officer in the Great War, he is slowly lobotomised by years of trench warfare. Wearing his research lightly, Faulks manipulates a large cast with skill. And, in the unspeakable fate of the front-line sappers, digging their warrens of deep tunnels under no man's land, constantly buried by earthfalls, sometimes literally bumping into their German counterparts and having to fight it out underground, he illuminates a dank corner of hell. that was new, at least to me.

The Sword and the Grail by Andrew Sinclair, Arrow pounds 5.99. In 1398, nearly a century before Columbus, a group of crusaders led by Henry St Clair, Earl of Orkney, tried to found a New Jerusalem in America. That is the thesis Andrew Sinclair sets out to prove in telling the story of this ancestor of his, an adventurous Knight Templar who served under the King of Denmark and in the Holy Land before making his voyage to 'Estotiland', as he called Nova Scotia. Along the way, Sinclair gets acquainted with much Grail lore and other arcana, whose symbols and signs (along with other, more conventional evidence) provide him with clues for the hunt. Not for me to assess the strength of this, but it's Rather compelling in its way.

Those Twentieth Century Blues: An Autobiography by Michael Tippett, Pimlico pounds 10. These memoirs reveal of 'Britain's greatest living composer' , which took three years to reach paperback, reveal Tippett as a heavy-duty Jungian. He begins via a recurring dream from infancy a forest-choked cottage with a 'Biting Lady' hammering at the door and ends with something dreamt at age 82, when his overland journey e's overlanding to eastern Turkey, at the age of 82, when he and dreams he is exploring a light, airy house which he shortly expects to occupy. In between, chunks of Tippett's dream diary (plus interpretation) are transcribed. Many are about his homosexuality. In the letters quoted here he is at his best writing as a pacifist prisoner in the Second World War. Hence the title sex and war being the two great bluenotes of the century.

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