Paperbacks

Reviewed by Emma Hagestadt and Christopher Hirst

Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski (Granta pounds 7.99)

He may be a living legend in the inky trade, but there's something offputting about Kapuscinski, the renowned Polish foreign correspondent. It is perhaps understandable that this plod round the USSR, during its disintegration between 1989 and 1993, should be unremittingly depressing. Less excusable is Kapuscinski's mannered, rhetorical style. Void of humour and human quirks, everyone he encounters becomes a symbol, usually trudging through a snowbound landscape.

Maypoles, Martyrs and Mayhem by Quentin Cooper & Paul Sullivan (Bloomsbury pounds 6.99)

This jolly canter through the year offers a twerpy rustic or two and often a grisly doing-to-death to mark each day. It's great fodder for pub bores. If a beery-breathed party informs you that Old Uncle Tom Cobbley really existed (died 6 March 1794), Prince Rupert's ghost and spectral dog still roam Edgehill (battle on 23 October 1642), or one Mary Carpenter died on 29 July 1938 of spontaneous combustion, you'll know where he got the gen.

A Japanese Mirror by Ian Buruma (Vintage pounds 7.99)

This engrossing exploration of Japan and its popular culture gives insights into a society which, despite obvious differences, is far from being utterly alien. Beneath the high-tech sheen, paganism still exerts a strong pull. Don't get the idea that this is a dry academic study. The first half is mainly devoted to women and sex, in particular its weird fictional depiction. The second half is about men and violence, especially yakuza gangsters. Transvestism provides a placid entr'acte.

Going Native by Stephen Wright (Abacus pounds 8.99)

Out in LA's scuzzy suburbs, Wright's wild inventions drift in and out of short-story-like chapters, much in the style of Altman's Short Cuts. They toke on crack, engage in S&M, dabble in the porn biz, but mainly they sample new identities. Among the protean beasts coupling in this transitory milieu, there is one who loves only his Ford Galaxie and gleaming arsenal of hand-guns. Death blooms among the pleasure-seekers. Wright's burnished prose prompts chill shivers in the reader.

In Search of the Edge of Time by John Gribbin (Penguin pounds 6.99)

Yet another sexy title on astrophysics. This one is about black holes, where matter is so condensed (imagine the Earth reduced to a sphere under 10cm in radius) that gravity holds light in. Though the idea dates from 1783, the term was coined in 1967 and has since passed into common parlance. Unfortunately, the underlying theories do not shift so easily into the public arena. Despite Gribbin's fluid style, the material is so intractable that it is inevitably limited in appeal.

A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham (Penguin pounds 6.99)

Pellucid and carefully observed, this is an absorbing, bitter-sweet novel of US middle-class life over the past 20 years. We accompany gay Jonathan and straight Bobby drifting into adulthood in Ohio and later in New York, where they form a viable, if unconventional, family unit with Clare, offbeat but determined. Cunningham gives a coolly sympathetic depiction of a relationship evolving over time. A wonderful, credible account of modern conundrums.

In My Own Time by Nina Bawden (Virago pounds 7.99)

For anyone who can remember tea-times in front of Carrie's War, Nina Bawden's reminiscences of her own childhood will hold much charm. It's only when she gets to her adult years that this usually generous writer lets caution get the better of her. A veil is drawn over her first marriage, and any mention of her work is tantalizingly incidental. "Almost an autobiography" is how she describes the book ... she's more honest than most.

Grace by Robert Lacey (Pan pounds 5.99)

Grace Kelly seems to have got Robert Lacey, like Alfred Hitchcock, rather hot under the collar. The controlled blonde with the passions of a wildcat is just the kind of subject guaranteed to whip the average biographer into a frenzy of skittish speculation, and, in Lacey's case, a little pontification too. Not the kindest or most original portrait of this thwarted woman, but an absorbing peek into the "right side of Park Avenue".

Come to Me by Amy Bloom (Picador pounds 5.99)

Amy Bloom's houses may smell of blueberry pancakes and strawberry pop- tarts, but the domestic arrangements of their owners are far from conventional. Mothers sleep with stepsons, and beer buddies with each other. "Love is not a pie" a dying mother reminds her angst-ridden daughter, and in Bloom's world affection isn't something to be saved for another day. A first collection which will find admirers this side of the Atlantic.

Love Cries ed. Peter Blazey, Victoria Dawson & Tim Herbert (Angus & Robertson)

From a continent not usually associated with the erotic arts, this anthology of Australian S & M fiction does little to improve the country's reputation in the mattress department. "Roll over, Sheila" may have been replaced by the more sophisticated dialogue of the city, but this doesn't disguise the fact that the techniques favoured in these stories are, in most other countries, generally saved for sheep.

I Knew A Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography by May Sarton (Women's Press pounds 7.99)

One of the most excruciating memories of the poet's youth was an expedition she organised for Virginia and Leonard Woolf to Whipsnade Zoo. That she even managed to meet the Woolfs, let alone persuade them 30 miles out of London, says something about the young American's spunk. In later years, Sarton's moods were often troubled, and, only two weeks after her death, it's poignant to read about more care-free times.

People Who Count by Dorothy Stein (Earthscan pounds 13.99)

According to Dorothy Stein, the world makes far too many assumptions when discussing the important issue of population control. Why is it that Western societies insist - despite all evidence to the contrary - that only children must be unhappy children, that childless women must be selfish, and that people without offspring face a lonely old age? Perhaps those who count should look more carefully at the counted.

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