BOOKS / Paperbacks

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The First Century After Beatrice by Amin Malouf, trs Dorothy Blair, Abacus pounds 6.99. Franco-Lebanese Malouf won the 1993 Prix Goncourt with this old-fashioned futuristic novel. The scientist-narrator is drawn into a campaign against a wonder drug which not only boosts a man's virility but removes the chance (or risk) of conceiving a girl child. For many it is a beneficial solution to the population crisis: others see it as an iniquity. And, unknown to either side of the debate, it launches civilisation's slide into destruction. Malouf's fiction raises some frightening issues, yet I found it hard to swallow a version of life 'sometime in the 21st century' in which sophisticated people still use the postal services. A pity too about the prose style (or translation of it?) which is at times ludicrously rotund.

The Inner Game by Dominic Lawson, Pan pounds 5.99. Many of the thousands of chess books published are written in impenetrable algebraic: 2. . .Ng5+]. Lawson, in chronicling Nigel Short's challenge for the 1993 World Championship, sticks to plain English, yet plumbs the 'abysmal depths' of the world of grandmaster chess where 'contrary to popular belief the rational intellect is usually the slave of the irrational ego'. Chess is, of course, a war game and Lawson, as one of Short's staff officers, gives a view from the defeated general's tent that is exciting and shrewd.

War Paint by Tom Wakefield, A & B pounds 6.99. There is more than a hint of Miss Jean Brodie in Kay Roper, the schoolmarm whose advanced ideas bring ferment to the wartime mining village of Wakefield's novel. Whether dealing briskly with a case of crab infestation in a colleague (whose husband has just come back from the war) or instructing her own headmistress in the art of love and pleasure, Miss Roper's peculiar directness about sex permeates the community like an erotic blush. But the secrets she withholds are even more fascinating.

Hot Art Cold Cash by Michel van Rijn, Warner Books pounds 7.99. This racy autobiography of a Dutch art-dealer and designer of scams is strewn with cliches and suffused with the author's self-regard. But his breathless career through the world's art market, smuggling icons and conning Japanese collectors, is intermittently informative and otherwise fun. In one incident, he stuffs Sotheby's with a dubious Albanian gold hoard, purely as revenge for being snubbed by Sir Richard Wilson and his snooty auction house. Van Rijn's stories may themselves be of dodgy provenance, but his expert salesman's patter makes for an enjoyable Fake's Progress.

The Letters of Nancy Mitford ed Charlotte Mosley, Sceptre pounds 8.99. The upper-class accent and point of view are ever present in Nancy Mitford but, unless that puts you off, she does seem one of the (last?) great letter writers, full of wit and gaiety, but also cunningly observant of fellow mortals. Often the humour has an edge of desperation, for beneath it lies Mitford's lifelong failure to win sexual love and the constant worry of having sisters addicted to political excess - one

besotted with Hitler, another married to 'the Poor Old Fuhrer' Oswald Mosley, a third a 'crop-haired communist in men's trousers'. Writing letters, as is evident from this well-edited collection, was her favourite way of cheering up.

Are You Looking at Me Jimmy? by Arnold Brown, Methuen pounds 7.99. This is something of a search for roots, but any resemblance to Arthur Haley ends there. Brown is a Glaswegian, a Jew and a comedian who, getting news of the death of his 99-year-old uncle Arthur, embarks on a small Odyssey of self-discovery in the streets of his home town. Wrestling with such problems as how a Jew chooses between the two Glasgow football ('fitba') teams or how one might apply his late uncle's ritual dietary laws ('never eat in a restaurant where the waiters have cloven feet'), he passes on a bunch of good one-liners and surreal images. Nice drawings by Ken Cox too.

Autobiopsy by Bernice Rubens, Abacus pounds 6.99. Rubens's story is of a novelist with an infallible rubber plunger for his writer's block - he

plagiarises straight from another writer's brain. In his fridge, Martin Peabody keeps the grey matter of his late friend Walter Berry, who is no longer England's greatest living novelist, and 'syphons' ideas from Berry's brain to build up a literary work which, naturally enough, is based on Berry's own highly-charged life. As an ironic commentary is interwoven Peabody's own more mundane story - the demands of his abandoned mother, the cold-heartedness of his rich father. In Rubens's expert hands, both stories are page-turners, even if the science fiction part is thrown away.

(Photograph omitted)

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