Books: Paperbacks: Gritty tales from the city

Lease on Life by Lynne Tillman Vintage pounds 6.99
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The Independent Culture
In her finest novel to date, New York writer and critic Lynne Tillman chronicles 24 hours in the life of Elizabeth Hall, an insomniac, paranoiac, part-time proofreader. The city Elizabeth watches from her window is a New York without the redemptive power of, say, Paul Auster, but with all of Spike Lee's potential for violence.

Except there are no real outlets for Elizabeth's murderous impulses. Instead, she gets her vicarious kicks from NYPD Blue, like the rest of us. And although she fantasises about wiping out the noisy, dirty lowlifes who pollute her street and her life, she takes her moral fury to City Hall. There, the Kafkaesque horrors of bureaucracy remind her of the stultifying routine of her workplace - where she corrects other people's errors.

Her live-in lover, Roy, is sufficiently disengaged from life to be able to sleep like a baby, so it is left to Elizabeth to do battle with her "enemies"; her building's "super" who hoards garbage instead of clearing it away, her absentee landlord who hikes up the rent but won't put a lock on the front door (so smack addicts score and jack up in the hallway leaving needles, blood and excrement behind them).

Elizabeth's mesmerisingly uneventful story takes place on the day O J Simpson raced his Bronco into televisual history. The night before this historic day, she is sitting by her window unable to sleep because the junkies of East Village are throwing dustbin lids at each other. She spots a man similarly occupied in the opposite building. Suddenly her innocent act is open to misunderstanding; will he suspect her of voyeurism, or is he a pervert?: "Even her liberty to look out of a window was controlled by others."

Tillman not only re-creates the rhythms, squalor and energy of urban life, she forges a powerful, yet understated, meditation on alienation, and the need to fight for your space, privacy and rights. Even the garbage over which Elizabeth trips each day takes on a sinister meaning suggestive of impotent rage. Tillman's deadpan prose keeps a steady footing despite the detritus, and, for light relief, she interrupts this Everywoman's story with corny jokes. When Elizabeth does exact her revenge on the ghetto-blasting litter-bugs who make her life a misery, it is a gesture fittingly inept although full of wry humour.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

by Amanda Foreman

Flamingo pounds 8.99

Amanda Foreman won last year's Whitbread Biography of the Year Award for this account of the sad life but interesting times of the daughter of an 18th-century Earl Spencer. Like our own tragically married Diana Spencer, the young Georgiana (born 1757) was fixed up with William, Duke of Devonshire. The charming young Duchess ruled over Chatsworth and Mayfair, adored by her contemporaries, but ignored by her husband. She threw herself into fund-raising for the Whigs, and possibly into the bed of "her favourite member" (of parliament, that is), Charles James Fox. But gambling was her real vice, and the "empress of fashion" racked up debts worth millions of pounds in today's money. Foreman is clearly enamoured of her subject, who certainly led an unconventional existence (she happily shared her husband's bed with his mistress), but she is misguided in attempting to lionise Georgiana's weaknesses, misrepresenting them as heroic failures rather than the all- too-human foibles that they are.

The Restraint of Beasts

by Magnus Mills

Flamingo pounds 6.99

Magnus Mills was, famously, a London bus driver when his first novel was published. It was shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize and Whitbread Award. He now writes full time. Which is good news, because, for once, the hype was right. Tam and Richie are two pathologically indolent Scottish fence-builders (of the high-tensile wire and wooden-struts variety) who can look no further than their next fag break and are reluctantly supervised by Mills's nameless English narrator. His brief is to take them over the border on a contract job building fences for an English sheep farmer. Mills's deadpan prose is a masterpiece of comic understatement - the mind-numbing repetitiveness of their tasks only relieved by glumly silent nights nursing pints in the pub. Each chapter ends on a ludicrous cliff-hanger, as it becomes less and less clear exactly which species of beasts is in need of restraint. As an extended metaphor on the nature of work, the novel is a brilliant success. But the final pay-off is weak; next time, Mills must put more effort into investing his demented creations with emotional power.

Midnight in Sicily: On Art, Food, History, Travel & La Cosa Nostra

by Peter Robb

Harvill pounds 6.99

Peter Robb, a professional Wandering Australian, it seems, takes the trial of Italy's seven-times prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, as his launch pad into an authorative exploration of this troubled isle. His main achievement is to recreate the anarchic bustle of Palermo's street life with sumptuous ease. And with a judicious sense of timing, he includes passages of social history and personal readings of literary classics that bolster his impressions providing the reader with a gripping account of recent history.

Don't Tell Dad: A Memoir

by Peter Fonda

Pocket Books pounds 7.99

What, no ghost writer? Fonda Junior simply doesn't need one. This is an extraordinary cautionary tale of premature celebrity and its psychological fall-out. The boy who rode motorbikes with Marlon Brando, received acting tips from James Caan, hung out with Dali and dropped acid with The Beatles was bound to come a cropper before he reached maturity. Read about the poor mite's travails here as told by a funny, compellingly honest wiser man.

The Spell

by Alan Hollinghurst

Vintage pounds 6.99

Not even when they are in the depths of the English countryside (and Hollinghurst slyly plays upon our stereotypical notions of this idyll) do this motley group - Alex, a suit from the Foreign Office, Robin, his ex-lover's smart, new architect boyfriend and the latter's 22-year-old, Ecstasy-dropping, gay son - shed their London affectations. If they are under a spell, it is Hollinghurst's task to relieve them of their delusions. This he does with compassion and humour, rather like Jane Austen, only with, as one critic put it, "penises and ecstasy".