BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

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! A Way in the World by V S Naipaul, Minerva £6.99. Is it the greater evil to uphold an empire or to betray the revolution against it? Disillusion and betrayal are central to Naipaul's sequence of nine historical and contemporary stories, all linked by the theme of colonialism. We follow Raleigh on his last doomed voyage to the West Indies, a political agitator into the Guyanese jungle, a Trotskyist spin doctor as he faces the corruption of political life in post-Independence West Africa. (This last, apparently, a fictionalised portrait of Naipaul's fellow Trinidadian C L R James.) With nods to Conrad and Graham Greene, who has his own walk-on part, Naipaul sadly acknowledges the entropy of political idealists, their dissolution into cynicism, aggrandisement and folly. Always the ironist, he realises that "we cannot understand all the traits we have inherited. Sometimes we can be strangers to ourselves."

! Betrayals by Charles Palliser, Vintage £5.99. This is the Novel-as- Open-University-Study-Pack: reading it I'm thinking "Borges! Eco! Barnes!" Murders, betrayals and monstrous incidents are paraded in a sheaf of apparently unrelated documents - the obituary of a biologist, a sequence of travellers' tales, the preface to an academic monograph, a Peeping Tom's diary. The strongest among many influences is Nabokov's Pale Fire, with its murder story concealed in a critical essay, but Palliser passes so many ancillary puzzles before you that the book's central mystery is how to locate the central mystery. The trail of clues leads at last to Glasgow University, where a murderous nest of back-biting academics contains, inter alia, a gloriously vile post-structuralist guru with some very odd ideas about continuous assessment.

! The Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh, Black Swan £5.99. In this novel - shortlisted for the '94 Booker - medievalism bumps into modernity. A Mediterranean island is benignly ruled by its Cardinal-Prince. Then a female "wolf child" is found and at the same time a stranger, Palinor, arrives displaying a markedly 20th century (and heretical) sensibility. The ruler, who himself is anachronistically scientific, orders an experiment to test the wild girl for innate religion, thereby hoping to show if Palinor, to whom he's taken a shine, can possibly be sincere. But soon the Inquisition intervenes and, since nobody expects the Inquisition, the Cardinal's plan goes nastily awry. Paton Walsh's theme is interesting but her book seems a little spoilt by treating an essentially comic premise much too seriously.

! The Rising Price of Love: The True Cost of the Sexual Revolution by Dr Patrick Dixon, Hodder £6.99. A Doctor writes and so, of course, we must all sit up and pay attention. Sex is not all it's cracked up to be, he says, with no great originality. It's not cost-effective, either. Keen to tot up the wages of sin, Dixon audits the "sexual revolution", and comes up with the figure of £1 billion a year of health care expenses, plus another £8 billion in social costs. There appear to be no benefits at all in our flight from Victorian sexual values, just a depressing litany of divorce, rape, porn, teen pregnancy, clap and AIDS. He even throws in the rocketing crime rate. Nixon tries for an objective tone, but his doom-laden puritanism easily degenerates into talk-show rant about "a world destroyed by sexual chaos".

! The Waterworks by E L Doctorow, Picador £5.99. This novel has all the author's customary historical accuracy - at least in detail if not always in literary style. The period is the 1870s, the place New York and the subject the city's monumental water supply system, the corruptions of City Hall, a son's search for the truth behind his father's alleged death and the doings of an evil genius named Dr Sartorius, an exponent of the Germ Theory of disease and seeker after eternal life. It is all very gothic and sinister but, unlike some of Doctorow's other books, too cool and passionless.

! John Steinbeck: A Biography by Jay Parini, Minerva £6.99. Does Steinbeck deserve the 600 pages of attention Parini gives him? Although still a bestselling author 27 years after his death, he has suffered next to Faulkner and Fitzgerald - despite his Nobel Prize - from the suspicion of a certain naffness. He could certainly be excruciatingly sentimental, but there are also moments of real anger and the willingness to take on risky themes which lend humanity and grandeur to the best of him. In life, Steinbeck was an obsessive, the very model of a writer emotionally disabled by his vocation. Parini suggests that Steinbeck was badly mothered. His endorsement of the Vietnam War and cruel treatment of his first wife are downplayed or excused.

! The Scold's Bridle by Minette Walters, Pan £4.99. Praise and awards, including a "Golden Dagger", were heaped on Walters's third novel last year. One distinguished publisher (not her own) even declared in print: "she's a genius and will eclipse all other novelists in the future". Let's not get incontinent here. The book belongs firmly in Agathaland - a rural village (helpful map included), body in the bath, contested will, secret diary, and a lot of Cluedo types exchanging tags from Hamlet and information that's no use to each other but wanted by the reader. There's also a chorus of rustics frothing with gossip, spite and innuendo. And that's it - a good formulaic detective story best enjoyed in a curled-up position by the fireside with a plate of lightly toasted crumpets. Proust, your crown is secure.

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