Books: Paperbacks

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Keats

by Andrew Motion,

Faber, pounds 14.99,

636pp

Just as Richard Holmes did for Shelley in The Pursuit, Motion rubbishes the conventional image of an etiolated rhapsodist. Setting the poet firmly in historical context, this epic, fast-moving portrait reveals a "robust ". Motion notes that Endymion ("A thing of beauty is a joy for ever..."), far from being an expression of aesthetic escapism, was inspired by Leigh Hunt's radical journalism. But the most powerful argument for Motion's reassessment is to be found in 's ferocious energy. The poet's unbearable final days tainted our view of his entire life. One critic maintained that his death was "accelerated by his discarding of the neckcloth, a practice of the Cockney poets".

Foreign Bodies

by Hwee Hwee Tan,

Penguin, pounds 6.99, 279pp

Singapore-born, British educated Hwee Hwee Tan's intriguing first novel is an unexpected treat. As good a writer as Timothy Mo when it comes to descriptions of cross-cultural chasms, this young writer (an enviable 24) tells the story of Andy, an English boy arrested in Singapore for heading a football gambling syndicate, Mei Mei (his girlfriend/lawyer), and Eugene (his university drinking buddy). As they wrestle with the Singaporese authorities, all three are forced to confront what they have made of their lives so far. A shared heritage of Michael Landon movies, George Michael lyrics and Peking Duck suppers keep this trio of "twenty-nothings" on track.

Kick

by Ed St John,

Mainstream, pounds 9.99, 191pp

Though "fond of auto-eroticism", the death of Michael Hutchence was not "a kinky sex act gone wrong" according to this literate but plodding account of INXS: "He had spent 37 years keeping his loneliness, self-doubt and insecurity at bay". St John hints that it might have been different if Hutchence had settled for Kylie Minogue ("an intriguing choice for a girlfriend") rather than Paula Yates ("a very poor choice of lover"). While brutally honest about the latter days of INXS ("alarming lack of musical direction and increasing irrelevance"), the book offers few insights about Hutchence, though we learn that this master of excess was "extremely careful with his money".

Intimate Letters

by Bel Mooney,

Warner Books, pounds 5.99, 274pp

Critics complain about a surfeit of twenty-something "singleton" novels on the market, but there are just as many dreary tales of middle- aged marital breakdown. Bel Mooney's latest is not untypical. Garden designer Rosa McKee is devastated when her husband forgets their 22nd wedding anniversary. Even more devastated when he drops down dead the next day from a heart-attack. And poleaxed when she discovers letters to a mysterious mistress on his home computer. But in the cold light of day a new Rosa begins to blossom: sexily confident and with a hitherto unsuspected talent for watercolour painting. A thoroughly entertaining read.

Rat Pack Confidential

by Shawn Levy,

Fourth Estate, pounds 12, 344pp

So that's where Tarantino got his iconic Reservoir Dogs image: Frank, Dino, Sammy, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop ("the mouse in the Rat Pack"), in ties and dark suits, stalking outside the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. But behind the snappy image and hip repartee, now imitated by a new generation of wannabe swingers, Sinatra's toadying retinue was mired in sleaze and violence. Levy's lapel-grabbing entertainment is told in a style so staccato that at times it breaks down into a series of quotes. "Dino was a good sex man, but his big interest was golf", says a club owner. it could be a script for a Scorsese epic, were he not already engaged on a bio-pic of Dean Martin.

Catching Shellfish Between the Tides

by Rosalyn Chissick,

Sceptre, pounds 6.99, 165pp

Rosalyn Chissick's first novel is like stepping into Habitat - lots of watermelon pinks, astrological suns and scented candles, with the additional feeling that none of the brightly painted furniture will stay the course. Set on a remote Greek island, the novel tells the story of Magda, a pregnant 20-year-old who floats from man to man, and ends up drowning her new-born in a bedroom basin. Some wonderfully sensuous descriptions of Attic mountain tops and wine-dark seas, Magda's history is told through a series of memories and dreams. Wiltshire's answer to Sagan; teenage melancholics will lap up Chissick's suicidal sex and "lipstick- red" sunsets.

Rosa Lee

by Leon Dash,

Profile, pounds 6.99, 275pp

This devastating narrative of poverty in present-day America won a Pulitzer Prize for the author, formerly a Washington Post reporter. Dash unteases the story of Rosa Lee, a 52-year-old grandmother, also an HIV-positive drug dealer. At the start of the book in 1988, we see her hawking "Maserati", a local brand of heroin. By the end, six years later, her daughter is jailed for involvement in murder and her son dies from Aids. In an epilogue, Dash reports the death of Rosa herself, adding simply: "I liked her and, now, I miss her." He warns that "without major intervention", her descendants are "more likely to make the same bad choices".

Are You Somebody: the Life and Times of Nuala O'Faolain,

Sceptre, pounds 6.99, 434pp

Newspaper columnist Nuala O'Faolain was put off writing her memoirs for fear of being thought too big for her boots. But in her fifties, and fed up with "furtiveness", she bit the bullet and wrote. Her book, a seductive mix of frank confessional (she drank too much, slept with married men and lived with a woman), and humility (she once made a film of the Shankhill Road without understanding the first thing about Irish politics), shot to the top of the bestseller lists. One of nine children, the daughter of an alcoholic mother and a feckless father, her teenage years read like an Edna O'Brien novel. Also included is a selection of her journalism.

Feeding the Ghosts

by Fred D'Aguiar,

Vintage, pounds 5.99, 226pp

In beautiful, luminous prose, D'Aguiar tells a terrible tale. While crossing the Middle Passage, Captain Cunningham, the master of the slave ship Zong, ditches 132 of his sickly human cargo in the Atlantic because they will merit a greater insurance payment as "goods lost at sea" than when auctioned. However, this crime is recorded by a chance survivor, a female slave called Mintah who happens to be literate. Her journal is used by insurers in an unsuccessful bid to prosecute Cunningham. Though free in Jamaica, Mintah's mind is full of ghosts from the Zong and she immolates herself. But her story remains to do its work: "The past is laid to rest when it is told."

Different for Girls

by Joan Smith, Vintage, pounds 6.99, 175pp

A cleverer version of Camille Paglia, novelist and journalist Joan Smith makes feminism both intellectually glitzy and emotionally sound. In a collection of essays covering divorce, single mothers, fashion and the media's preoccupation with "suicidal blondes", Smith explores Dorothy Sayers's line that though men and women are not alike, they are "more like men than anything else in the world". Still included in the book, in its unrevised state, is the author's essay on Princess Diana - a piece published four days before Diana's death which argued that the only logical ending for this self-styled "donna abbandonata" was death in the final act.

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