BOOKS / Pick of the year: From epic love stories to political memoirs, from espiocrats to poets' lives, a selection of leading hardbacks from 1993

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FICTION

ALL THE PRETTY HORSES by Cormac McCarthy, Picador pounds 14.99. A boy, a girl, horses, brawls, the pull south from Texas to Mexico: extraordinary that the classic ingredients of the western can be made into a fiction for the 1990s. Whatever the explanation - the quality of the writing, the gripping storyline, the mythic undertow, or the exploration of universal themes of love and loyalty - this magnificent novel (the first in a projected trilogy) is unlikely to be bettered this year.

PADDY CLARKE HA HA HA by Roddy Doyle, Secker pounds 14.95. Set, like Doyle's previous novels, in the fictional Dublin suburb of Barrytown, this is one of the funniest representations of juvenile experience in modern literature. It is 1968 and 10- year-old Paddy's life, here chronicled in apparently unruly sequence, is an idyllic stream of scrapes, lessons and games of four-a-side street football until his parents' separation introduces the inevitable note of sadness and disillusion: Paddy can think of no reason why his father should hate his mother, since 'she was lovely looking, though it was hard to tell for sure'. A treat.

REMEMBERING BABYLON by David Malouf, Chatto pounds 14.99. In the 1840s, a ship's boy cast ashore in northern Australia is taken in by Aborigines; 16 years later (when the novel opens) he steps out of the bush, 'a black white-feller', and inadvertently confronts the new white settlers with their unspoken terrors. This dramatisation of an edge-of-the-world encounter between the 'civilised' and the 'primitive' is outstanding: a deft and economical evocation of an entire nascent society, punctuated by moments of dazzling, revelatory language and unforgettable images.

A SUITABLE BOY by Vikram Seth, Orion pounds 20. Holiday reading for stay-at-homes (or those willing to shell out for excess baggage), Seth's famously enormous novel is a love-it-or-hate-it experience - a Middlemarch for our times or an incontinent soap opera. Set in post-partition India, it centres on the love story between a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy, but is really a series of interconnected narratives that explore and illuminate the complexities - cultural, religious, political and moral - of the entire sub-continent. Unashamedly old-fashioned (no stylistic pyrotechnics, no Freudian psychology), it offers the kind of slow burn that can become addictive.

THE NIGHT MANAGER by John le Carre, Hodder pounds 15.99. The collapse of the Berlin Wall signalled lean times for spies and Cold War thriller writers. Le Carre's response has been to shift his 'espiocrats' from applied to 'pure' intelligence, in a novel about an undercover operation to smash a spectacular arms-for-drugs scam involving Colombian cocaine gangs. The result is an efficient, old-style thriller.

A DEAD MAN IN DEPTFORD by Anthony Burgess, Hutchinson pounds 14.99. The most enjoyable of the flurry of books marking the death of Christopher Marlowe 400 years ago. Narrated by an actor who played in the first production of Tamburlaine, Burgess's novel moves with relish through fights, blasphemy and buggery to high talk of mathematics and necromancy in Raleigh's alternative think-tank, all written in well-judged pastiche: 'Of his bare body I observed but little hair, the mane thin above the fairsized thursday.'

THE INFINITE PLAN by Isabel Allende, Harper Collins pounds 14.99. South America comes to California, 'the last frontier, the goal of adventurers, desperadoes, non-conformists, fugitives', in this novel which spreads itself over half a century and brings on a huge cast of characters. At the centre of it all is Gregory, who moves out of the Hispanic ghetto through Vietnam to wealth and fame. Elegant, lyrical, passionate and - whether in a slum backyard or on a battlefield at night - richly attentive to place. So nearly a great novel.

A RIVER SUTRA by Gita Mehta, Heinemann pounds 9.99. Told to an Indian bureaucrat on the banks of the holy Narmada river, these stories are alive with the rich variety of India's people and mythology: a young man is driven mad; a child is saved from prostitution; an ugly woman learns to make music. No neat endings, but a wonderfully dry narrative voice combined with moments of great lyricism. Superb, profound, effortless storytelling.

IN THE PLACE OF FALLEN LEAVES by Tim Pears, Hamish Hamilton pounds 14.99. Unusually well- made first novel about a 13-year-old Devon farm girl's confrontation, one sticky summer, with sex, death and the weather. Alison's relationships with her idiosyncratic family and with the shy young aristocrat she meets at the local quarry pool are shown as part of a cycle, with the characters replicating the strengths and weaknesses of their forebears, and present incidents powerfully echoing past ones. A very English kind of magic.

NON-

PHILIP LARKIN by Andrew Motion, Faber pounds 20. Amid the worked-up outrage over Larkin's racist, misogynistic or merely misanthropic remarks ('I don't want to take a girl out and spend pounds 5 when I can toss off in five minutes, free', etc), it's easy to forget the transcendent wonder of the poetry itself. This majestic biography never lets you forget, patiently elucidating the fucked-up childhood, tortured sexual relationships and depression behind some of the great poems of the century.

DAPHNE DU MAURIER by Margaret Forster, Chatto pounds 17.95. Daphne thought she was a boy who had somehow got into the body of a girl, and that it was the boy who wrote Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and the rest. The girl, meanwhile, married an army major, had three children, found her dream house, Menabilly, in Cornwall, and - this book's major revelation - had two deep love affairs with women. An intelligent and good-humoured Life.

ALAN CLARK'S DIARIES, Weidenfeld pounds 20. One of the most compelling accounts of modern politics ever written, by one of the most repellent men ever to have held office. Unrequited in his adoration of Margaret Thatcher, Clark gleefully records his other sexual successes, while slagging off most of his colleagues ('that podgy life-insurance risk' Kenneth Clarke, the 'sozzled' Peter Bottomley), not to mention assorted Paddys, 'ugly, common' proles, and denizens of 'Bongo- bongo land'. Westminster has never seemed so ugly, back-stabbing or unprincipled.

CULTURE OF COMPLAINT by Robert Hughes, OUP pounds 12.95. Political correctness is out to clean up our speech and behaviour. But in the US, once the land of free speech and expression, it is threatening instead to stifle thought, murder language, proscribe humour and impose a dingy conformity. This short book, by an Australian-born art critic who still values America as a Utopian site of experiment and pluralism, lucidly diagnoses where pc has come from and where it will take us if we don't watch out.

ELIZABETH GASKELL by Jenny Uglow, Faber pounds 20. The superwoman of Victorian literature was lovely, charming, clever, expansive, a devoted mother, a cheerful socialite, a novelist of astonishing energy who - unlike the other women writers of her generation: George Eliot, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Bronte sisters - did not protect herself from the real world in order to get her writing done. This sober biography does her life and work full justice.

SOME OTHER RAINBOW by John McCarthy and Jill Morrell, Bantam pounds 14.99. Heartwarming tale of a man's courage and a woman's loyalty. McCarthy's kidnapping was a world event, but - after five year's incarceration - world events began to seem unreal to him and he worried if Morell and his friends might have outgrown him. He needn't have: just as he never lost his stoicism and humour, so her efforts on his behalf were unstinting. Their reunion gives this overlong but gripping book its real-life romantic ending.

FIGHTING ALL THE WAY by Barbara Castle, Macmillan pounds 20. Young Barbara wrote her first election address at six and went on to become one of the great modern Labour stalwarts. Had she, rather than Jim Callaghan, succeeded Harold Wilson, she might also have become the first female PM. This, the story of her life, is less gossipy and intimate than The Castle Diaries, but no less the product of a passionately determined woman.

THE KENNETH WILLIAMS DIARIES ed Russell Davies, HarperCollins pounds 20. Williams kept a diary for more than 40 years - as a record, a confessional and 'to ease my loneliness'. The 800 pages make depressing reading, not so much because his sex life was so meagre (he dutifully records each - rhyming slang - 'Barclays'), or because the Carry On joking evidently stopped offscreen, but because they're so horribly self- absorbed. Fascinating nonethless - a trespass into the misery of someone else's inner life.

ROOTS SCHMOOTS: Journeys Among Jews by Howard Jacobson, Viking pounds 16.99. Sceptical about the idea of finding anything he could call home, the novelist sets off on a global journey that takes him to Lithuania (birthplace of his great-grandparents), New York, Jerusalem and Llandudno. Though he meets, and challenges, many different kinds of Jew along the way, the charm of the book is the honesty and wit with which he confronts his own difficult feelings about roots and identity.

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