Paperbacks

Last Night's Fun by Ciaran Carson (Pimlico, pounds 10) "I could never understand how rock stars would drink whiskey and Coke; perhaps their appetites had been depraved by electricity." This learned, loquacious collection of bits and bobs is resolutely muscle-powered. Mainly a paean to traditional Irish music, it also includes disquisitions about roll- up fags, obscure brands of whiskey and the Irish breakfast, in particular fried eggs ("Mote is a crisp-edged man. Deidre's over-medium-hard, with a slightly liquid centre"). The book is not entirely successful in its Joycean ambition to mirror a night of music, with each chapter named after a tune. But, like a raucous ceilidh, the result combines nostalgia, sentiment, wild energy and much laughter.

Acts of Revision by Martyn Bedford (Black Swan, pounds 5.99) Gregory Lynn has no stake in the adult world. "Orphan, bachelor and only child from the age of four and a half", he hides out in his mum's suburban semi living on fried eggs and Fanta, obsessed by childhood slights and miseries. Unhinged by his mother's death, he decides to seek out his secondary school teachers and give them a much-needed lesson in pain and humiliation. Told in a series of grisly vignettes, the novel describes the appropriate punishments Gregory metes out to his erstwhile tormentors. (Pity poor Mr Patrick who taught him the causes of the French Revolution.) Grange Hill meets Seven in this slick and funny first novel.

The Oxford Book of Nature Writing edited by Richard Mabey (OUP, pounds 7.99) After sternly declaring "The pieces included in this text are all factual prose", it is unfortunate that the first choice commences: "Once upon a time there was a fierce war waged between the Birds and the Beasts ..." But once Aesop is out of the way, nature reveals its incomparable superiority of invention compared to the weedy efforts of man. Mabey demonstrates how nature has consistently inspired tender, perceptive writing by both scientists and literati. The poet William Cowper writes movingly about the different personalities in a family of hares he adopted, while biologist Niko Tinderman notes that by marking wasps "they were transformed into acquaintances". This is one of the most readable and revealing of anthologies.

The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter (HarperCollins, pounds 8.99) Not to be confused with the vocal harmony group The Inkspots - though they were of much the same period - the Inklings were a weedy bunch of Oxford eggheads who liked nothing better than a natter about Beowulf while knocking back a noggin or two. They revolved round C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien and Charles Williams (who, unlike the other two, did not gain a vast readership for his cranky thrillers). Despite an unfortunate chapter devoted to an imaginary record of this dusty gang ("Well, Tollers, I still don't know how you keep up your story so magnificently. It hasn't flagged for a moment"), Carpenter's masterly portrait of intellectuals at play is unexpectedly entertaining. Whether their demanding company would be so enjoyable in the flesh is doubtful.

Appassionata by Jilly Cooper (Corgi, pounds 6.99) Only Jilly Cooper could get away with a sexy blockbuster set among the stars of the international classical music circuit. Well, not sexy exactly, but definitely gap-toothed earthy. These pointy-bosomed flautists, big-bottomed sopranos and pig- tailed conductors don't sit about in hotel rooms practising their scales. They're out seducing the socks off each other, especially the book's heroine, Abigail Rosen, a highly strung violinist turned conductor who is prepared to sacrifice everything for a night of passion in an airport Hilton. Even though they have exchanged riding whips for batons and bows, Cooper's characters might just as well be mounting horses as podiums, but, being the old pro that she is, it doesn't seem to matter.

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