Kitchen Venom by Philip Hensher (Penguin, pounds 6.99) This dream-like, vitriolic novel probes the mysterious figures who operate the mechanisms of parliament. At its heart is John, a senior House of Commons clerk, whom Hensher rather overburdens with varied characteristics: he is newly widowed, a closet gay, a hunchback and, eventually, a murderer. John's bickering daughters, bland Francesca and boozy Jane, dally with his colleagues. Over all looms the giant, doomed figure of Margaret Thatcher. A stunningly accomplished work, this roman a clef cost Hensher his job at the House.
A Moment's Liberty: the shorter diary by Virginia Woolf (Pimlico, pounds 15) "How it would interest me if this diary were ever to become a real diary: but then I should have to speak of the soul...". Thank goodness, she never did. In his Introduction, Quentin Bell remarks that Woolf's "sometimes formidable" novels are indifferent to the "humdrum facts of everyday life", while in her diaries she does not refrain from noting "the price of eggs". This miracle of compression (five volumes into one) reveals Woolf dipping her pen in acid. Ulysses reminds her of "a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples" while Vivien Eliot is "biting, wriggling, raving, scratching, unwholesome, powdered, insane...". By summer 1940, her mood darkens unbearably: "I can't conceive there will be a 27th June 1941". There wasn't for her, poor thing.
The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie (Mandarin, pounds 5.99) "A work of comic genius" declares Time Out on the cover, but Laurie's first novel is neither comic - unless you split your sides at the description of over-watered whisky as "Vaguely Familiar Grouse" - nor is it remotely a work of genius. In fact, it is a bog-standard, testosterone-fuelled boy's thriller, heavy on the weapons technology ("Hydra 70mm rockets, Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, 50 machine guns. This was a big toy for big boys") but unexpectedly light on sex. Somewhere beneath the shoot-outs, there's a chiffon-like plot about the arms trade. Laurie has the nerve to use a Wilde quotation for one of his chapter headings: "There is no sin except stupidity." Quite.
Children of England by Alison Weir (Pimlico, pounds 8.99) With impressive narrative skill, Alison Weir pilots her readers through the ceaseless tides of intrigue which surged around the four heirs of King Henry VIII. Her mastery of detail brings their tempestuous lives into sharp focus from a distance of four centuries: the arsenic administered to the teenage King Edward VI, not to kill him, but to prolong his death agonies for political reasons; the blindfold figure of Lady Jane Grey groping for the chopping block ("Where is it?") on the scaffold; the last act of Queen Mary, on her death bed, signing a warrant for the burning of two heretics; Princess Elizabeth planting herself in a wet street when en route to prison: "It is better sitting here than in a worse place." This is full-blooded history.
Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve by Francis King (Allison & Busby, pounds 8.99) The ash in the title is more exotic than it sounds. Elliott Baker, a retired civil servant, surprises himself by buying cocaine on the first night of his visit to Cuba and is transformed: "Within me, a machine, long since unused, had come to life at the touch of a switch." Amid the decaying grandeur of Old Havana, he falls for a young policeman called Enaes, but finds it hard to tell whether he receives politeness or lust in response. Funded by Elliott's dollars, they embark on a series of adventures, culminating in a religious spectacle which is said to presage the death of Castro. In the aftermath, Enaes disappears. King's spell-binding tale expertly blends dislocation and strange magic.
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