BOOKS: PAPERBACKS

! What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe, Penguin £5.99. Coe has contrived a novel which contains several of the finest British genres gleefully jostling for room. The main plot is that of conspiracy thriller: seedy writer mysteriously hired by rich patron to write a book about a noted family (noted principally for the greed and general vileness of its members). Then Coe, deviating into a saga of Gals- worthian ambition, turns his well-stropped satirical edge against the political and moral putrefaction of the 1980s. In the meantime pulp detective stories, bedsit romance and the fiction of suburban childhood all get a look-in, while references along the way include the Matrix-Churchill affair, veal farming, Barings-type banking, Cluedo, deregulated telly, hospital waiting lists and the invention of the VCR. Very funny, very accurate.

! Carrington: A Life of Dora Carrington by Gretchen Gerzina, Pimlico £10. It is nearly always a good idea to read the book before seeing the film and here is a chance, well in advance of Emma Thompson's celluloid version, to do your prep on Carrington. Although a brilliant and precocious artist, her work was to some extent blighted by low self-esteem. So, though the author would like to celebrate the painter, we are continually distracted by the emotional battles of an affectionate, vivacious and original woman who yearns for love, attracts men violently and yet remains deeply ambivalent about sex. Her platonic cohabitation with Lytton Strachey, dallying the while with other lovers, is a sort of solution, yet it results in her suicide at 40. A most interesting read, though not particularly useful on Carrington's art, that proves an essential annexe to her matchless letters and diaries.

! The Downing Street Years by Margaret Thatcher, Harper- Collins £9.99. The cover blurb carries effusions from Bernard Ingham and Norman Tebbit. Nor are there many surprises once you get inside. "To tell some stories you have to live them," says Thatcher early on. Yet she gives no evocations of life at No 10, just page after page of exhausting self-service, as the Iron Lady piles her plate high with the tasty bits of history. Falklands? Couldn't have prevented the invasion. Miner's Strike? A Marxist insurrection. Poll Tax? "A last chance for responsible local democracy". Arms sales to Iraq? Not mentioned. Home-lessness? A "behavioural problem". And on and on. If an ever-increasing number of people now feel the woman owes us an apology so grovelling that the pavements of Cheyne Walk will ripple, they need not look here.

! Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now by Maya Angelou, Virago £5.99. These short homilies, collected from columns in Essence magazine, often read like a parish newsletter. "The New Testament informs readers that it is more blessed to give than to receive" begins one. "A day away acts as a spring tonic" chirrups another. Coming from such a sophisticated woman they are not only trite, they sometimes dissolve into utter nonsense: "To become and remain a woman command the existence and employment of genius." Yet there are still two or three moments when she redeems some of her reputation for evocative writing.

! The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich. Flamingo £5.99. This is the fourth self-contained novel in Erdrich's sequence set among the modern Chippewa Indians of North Dakota. The essence of the story is a love rivalry between Lyman, the rascally bingo king, and Lypsha, the feckless youth who uses his shamanic powers to win at that game. Both desire Shawnee, the ambitious young woman who dreams of college and independence. Erdrich's characters are equally seduced by tribal magic and American materialism. In their ambivalence they cannot afford - and are not permitted - either sentimentality or fake reverence for "native America", which are the stock New Age and PC responses. This tough quality makes for an exhilarating novel, with writing both lyrical and streetwise.

! The Servant by Alistair McAlpine, Faber £6.99. The successful Prince (aka strong-willed PM) can rule only with an Idea. The Prince's Servant (aka Private Secretary, Party Chairman or Minister) is a schemer and enabler, a money-raiser, an enforcer. In the Servant, loyalty is not enough: he must be a Believer, in love with the Idea. Yet he must conceal himself behind a Myth and make people believe it. Truth, after all, is only what people believe. This trim sequel to Machiavelli, written by the former Treasurer of the Tory Party, illuminates the fundamentals of Thatcherism far better than Thatcher's own memoirs. Indeed, had she read this book first, she might never have taken Harper-Collins's gold. For as McAlpine cannily observes: "The Prince takes great risk in writing books (which) give opponents the opportunity to comment on his performance." Quite so.

! City Lights by Keith Waterhouse, Sceptre £6.99. No amount of pot-tossing with Jeffrey Bernard, pootering with Dame Judi Dench and spluttering in the Daily Mail can obscure the fact that Water-house has knocked out three of the best novels about growing up published since the war. Anyone who hasn't read There Is A Happy Land, Billy Liar and In The Mood should repair the damage at once, then enjoy this companion volume, Waterhouse's account of his own early life in Leeds in the '30s and '40s. It is divided into sections (named for each of the three novels) and thus covers in turn short trousers, the years either side of puberty and the late teens. Needless to say it's a gem.

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