BOOKS / Paperbacks

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The Man Who Wasn't Maigret by Patrick Marnham, Penguin pounds 7.99. This warts-'n'-almost-all portrait of Georges Simenon, in his lifetime the bestselling author in the world, is bound to be fascinating: the women (Simenon himself claimed 30,000), the books (up to 45 pulp novels a year before he created Inspector Maigret, and then four or five), the dubious wartime activities that caused a stir in France. Marnham's research is impressive, and he makes his account more compelling by a careful and sensitive psychological reading of a character as bizarre as any of the writer's own fictions: talented, obsessive, violent, terrified of not being loved.

The Porcupine by Julian Barnes, Picador pounds 4.99. This slim, intense, meditative roman d'idees is a political allegory in which the bad old world of the Soviet satellites is confronted by the new era. In the process of laying blame, the moral issues become ever more relentlesly tangled as the wicked past reveals its own terrible integrity and the new idealism totters like a day-old foal. But Barnes strolls with ease through the intellectual maze he creates, often confounding us with apparent simplicity. A spiky and discomfiting book, much less easy to read than his previous novels, but deeply memorable - this is the sort of response we like to think artists will make to great events in the world, even though they hardly ever do.

City of Boys by Beth Nugent, Phoenix pounds 5.99. This acclaimed first set of short stories in the American simple-syntax tradition has evoked the now routine comparisons with the Cheever-Carver school. But there's also a distinctive streak of the fantastical here: Nugent combines her sharp eye with a particular, dreamy detachment that suffuses her world of supermarkets, difficult mothers, suburban kitchens and TV Superbowl games with a quasi-hypnotic quality. Slice-of-life, yes - but viewed from underneath the bell-jar.

The Revolt Against Change: Towards a Conserving Radicalism by Trevor Blackwell & Jeremy Seabrook, Vintage pounds 5.99. At the end of the bad old Eighties, there was general agreement that something different had to happen in the 'caring' Nineties - but what? These two authors put forward a radical vision of change that is anti-change - anti, that is, the capricious changes demanded by capitalism in crisis. They argue instead for the values of conservation and continuity. And if their anti-materialist argument sometimes sounds idealistic, it is at least a challenging and thought-provoking position that defies the usual categories.

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