Books: Paperbacks

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May the Lord in his Mercy be Kind to Belfast by Tony Parker, HarperCollins pounds 7.99. Parker is an oral historian whose sympathy leads his interviewees to unburden themselves eloquently and honestly. His latest project took him to Belfast and it is hard to think of a book which gets closer to the broken heart of that place. He records the words of 73 men, women and children, giving minimal stage directions along the way. The result is entirely credible. Men of violence, pacifists, politicians, voters, police and paramilitaries, the Shankill and the Falls: all exist side by side here as they cannot in life. They should read it. So should everyone.

The Book of Guys by Garrison Keillor, Faber pounds 8.99. A fat book of stories in which Keillor's voice sounds the intimate / declamatory note familiar from Lake Wobegon, but the territory is the whole of America, and the subject is Guys (including himself) Being Miserable. Maybe Keillor's tendentious side has begun to predominate over the observer; puzzling over the New Man / Slob dichotomy, he becomes at times hardly coherent. Still, there is enough here to remind his fans why they love him.

James Joyce: The Years of Growth 1882-1915 by Peter Costello, Papermac pounds 10.99. Joyce last saw Ireland when he was 30, by which time he had enough experience of it to furnish a lifetime's literary material. This biography is limited deliberately to the first 33 years of his life and, while Costello cannot depose Richard Ellmann as Joyce's foremost evangelist, he's done some productive research into parts that Ellmann could not reach.

Campion's Ghost by Garry O'Connor, Sceptre pounds 5.99. John Donne, courtier, metaphysical poet, divine and subject of this novel, had an active, up-and-down life at a time of vivid political, religious and cultural change, but his career also has puzzling lacunae, making him an obvious choice for the inventive historical novelist. O'Connor's man is torn, like any Graham Greene hero, between spirit and flesh, convenience and conscience, Catholicism and Protestantism - desiring the martyrdom of Campion, he fears the thumbscrew of Topcliffe - but at heart this book is an enjoyable codpiece-and-chips saga of a type readily recognisable to readers of Jean Plaidy.

Michael, Michael by Wendy Perriam, Flamingo pounds 5.99. Perriam is celebrated for her forthright sex scenes, and this story, one year in the initiation of a clever Oxford undergraduate named Tessa, is generously erotic. Tessa's Svengali is Dr Michael Edwards, who goes at her like a bull before he proves, inevitably, to be a two-timing bastard. But Tessa, by this time pregnant, embarks on a compulsive hunt for a substitute for her lost lover. A novel which began in healthy lust evolves towards a sick consummation as Tessa's mental hinges bend and then drop off. Although it is a comedy, the sex is more explicit than the sly humour, which at times makes it hurt to laugh.

Antoine de St-Exupery: The Life and Death of the Little Prince by Paul Webster, Papermac pounds 10.99. The Little Prince is one of the most enduringly popular children's books in France, partly because St-Exupery was such a well-known figure between the wars - a writer-flyer, the equivalent of a pensee-prone astronaut today, perhaps. The story of his life (mainly planes and dames) is full of accidents, largely caused by his dreamy disposition. Some thought him a Vichyite collaborator, but his motives were solidly (and anguishedly) patriotic and he showed no sign of the paranoid anti-Semitism of people like Laval. He did fly for France after D-Day, but was shot down taking a typically dozy detour over enemy lines. The biographer's approach is without frills.

The Triple Mirror of the Self by Zulfikar Ghose, Bloomsbury pounds 6.99. Big novels by professors of creative writing often turn out fat with metaphoric significance and alienation techniques. This one, tracing a man's life-journey from Pakistan to the Amazon rain forest (via Bombay, London and America) is in several ways true to the genre: it tells its story backwards, slips from one voice to another, samples literary styles and tries to comprehend the multiple personality of a world Everyman. Ghose's saving graces are his low-intensity flashes of irony and an excellent section about a young teenager's Bombay sex life.

The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court by Peter Taylor, Sceptre pounds 5.99. Now 77 and a master of the short story, Peter Taylor writes about his home state of Tennessee and of the period between the American Civil War and the Second World War. Several of the stories here (two are almost novel-length) concern witchcraft and the occult in a you-can-believe-it-if-you-like way, but his real concern is with more mundane matters, into which the supernatural enters like a dash of pepper.

The Book of Aran ed John Waddell, J W O'Connell & Anne Korff, pounds 15.95 (from Tr Eolas, Newtownlynch, Kinvara, Co. Galway). An evocative and information-packed (if a bit over- written) celebration of the islands off the Galway coast which one admirer has called 'Ireland raised to the power of two'. Spectacularly strange geology, ancient forts and rare flora are part of the magic, but so is the place's history as a key port in the 16th-century wine trade (pirates abounded) and its rugged lifestyle, based (until tourism began) on fishing, kelp- gathering and turf-cutting. There was no room for waste: until they reached their teens, boys wore their mothers' cut-down skirts (below).

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