BOOKS; PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
! The Rose Crossing by Nicholas Jose, Penguin pounds 6.99. It is 1652, and at either end of an uninhabited island somewhere in the Indian Ocean two ships have run aground. On one is the English naturalist Edward Popple and his stowaway daughter Rosamund; the other holds Taizao, prince of the Chinese province of Yong, and his aged servant Lou Lu. Popple is obsessed with working out the laws which govern nature, but agonises over his own "unnatural" desire for his daughter. By contrast, Lou Lu wishes to cure his master's unnatural lack of desire for any woman, which threatens his succession and claim to the throne of China. This is an unashamedly cerebral story of two cultures thrown together with, at its centre, the image of the rose, signifying both untrammelled female sexuality and man's manipulation of nature. A beautifully written, truly exotic novel.

! Up North: Travels Beyond the Watford Gap by Charles Jennings, Abacus pounds 6.99. The trouble with this alleged piss-take of whippets, flat caps and so on is that it lacks the courage of its convictions. In Jennings' first stop, Birmingham (which, he laboriously tells us, he knows isn't the real North unless, like him, you're a complete Southern jessie), he hits the first of many (red) brick walls. There are good bits and bad bits, but Brum's pretty much all right really and so on, from Blackpool to Barnsley. What humour there is involves watching poor people being, well, poor, and the whole thing is padded out with passages that read like verbatim extracts from guide books. Southerners!

! Cycle of Violence by Colin Bateman, HarperCollins pounds 4.99. Just as The Troubles seem finally to be ending, Colin Bateman is belatedly establishing himself as their greatest satirist. His debut novel, Divorcing Jack, won the prestigious Betty Trask Prize, and this follow-up offers more of the same. Bicycling journalist Miller (he has a problem with his Christian names) has been exiled from his big-city Belfast paper to the dire backwater of Crossmaheart following a drink-related run-in with the boss. Crossmaheart is riven by sectarian politics and violence. As Marie, his only friend there, tells him: "Even the Women's Institute kidnaps people round here. They torture them for days, then throw them in the lake wearing concrete boots and a crocheted life jacket." And indeed, Marie herself vanishes not long after Miller begins to solve the riddle of his predecessor's mysterious disappearance. The resulting yarn is fast-paced, very black and very funny: Roddy Doyle meets Carl Hiaasen.

! The Germans: Who Are They Now? by Alan Watson, Mandarin pounds 7.99. Germany is a powerhouse of a nation. With a population of 78 million and a gross national product of pounds 1.1 trillion it dominates Europe. But problems persist: there is the huge dislocation caused by unification, the rise of the Far Right, the nagging self-doubt of a country which has started two world wars - plus the continuing distrust of its neighbours. Alan Watson, chairman of the Anglo-German Association and holder of the German Order of Merit, is, refreshingly, a Germanophile. His updated analysis of a country at the crossroads is thorough and engaged, if overlong.

! The Matrix by Jonathan Aycliffe, HarperCollins pounds 6.99. Andrew MacLeod, mourning the death of his wife Catriona, takes up a research post in Edinburgh. His subject is the sociology of religious cults, but what begins as a purely academic investigation soon turns into something far deadlier (or undeadlier) as he falls under the spell of a smooth-talking advocate-come- satanist. Despite all the usual supernatural hokum - pentangles, goat's hooves, "shadow infested corridors", people wearing long cloaks - this is an entertaining and creepy novel, a classic supernatural story in the vein of Wheatley and Poe.

! The Book of Sodom ed Paul Hallam, Verso pounds 10.95. Paul Hallam admits at the beginning of this anthology that he is "more a Sodom obsessive than a Sodom scholar", and indeed this quickly becomes apparent. His extracts cover everything from the original and rather oblique story in Genesis to James Anderton, the firebrand former chief constable of Manchester, speaking of the "human cesspit" of sodomy; to Summer in Sodom, an early American gay porn novel about "the borderline world of normal and abnormal love". There are longer extracts, such as those from Aldo Busi's Sodomies in Elevenpoint and the Talmud, as well as the author's musings on his own homosexuality. A very loose anthology, in both senses of that adjective.

! La Moreau: A Biography of Jeanne Moreau by Marianne Gray, Warner Books pounds 7.99. French screen legend Jeanne Moreau very nearly ended up English. Happily for the French - and cinema fans everywhere - when her mother returned to her native Lancashire after the Second World War, Jeanne opted to stay in Paris with her French father. It was there that her sultry talent was nurtured, culminating in the Nouvelle Vague collaborations with Truffaut and Bunuel. From early triumphs through to Fassbinder's 1982 dockside drama of lust and death, Querelle, Marianne Gray charts with detail, if not always with great fluency, the sexual sophistication and intelligence that have made Moreau such an icon.

! Mrs Jordan's Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a Future King by Claire Tomalin, Penguin pounds 8.99. Dora Jordan bore the Duke of Clarence (who became William IV) ten children, the FitzClarences, and lived with him in a Royal residence near Hampton Court for 20 years. All that time she never stopped working, pursuing a career as a comic and Shakespearean actress that won her the plaudits of Byron, Coleridge, Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt, and the attentions of scurrilous cartoonists like Gillray. No gold- digger, Dora even had to support her impecunious royal lover. Then Clarence dumped her aged 50, and she died in exile in France, separated from her children and facing financial ruin due to the callous disregard of the Duke's advisers. Tomalin's tireless sleuthing has uncovered a tragic, fascinating story which has been tidied out of Royal history for far too long (one biography of William IV dismissed Dora in half a sentence). Even better than Tomalin's study of Dickens' actress lover, Nelly Ternan, and required reading for the Princess of Wales or anyone else who thinks that moral and marital confusion in the monarchy is anything new.

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