PAPERBACKS

Pig by Andrew Cowan, Penguin pounds 5.99. Winner of a cabinet-full of literary awards, Cowan's debut novel is a poignant, bitter-sweet meditation on the traumas, delights and absurdities of growing up. Set on the peeling, ramshackle margins of some dead-end new town, it is the story of Danny, a futureless 15-year-old who determines to look after his grandfather's ancient pig after the old man is forcibly removed to a retirement home. Accompanied by his Indian girlfriend Surinder he creates in his grandparents' garden a summer's refuge from the racism, squalor and hopelessness of the world beyond. The gauche intensity of adolescence is conjured with great understanding, as are the corrosive effects of bigotry and urban poverty. Over all, however, looms the pig, an ailing, arthritic creature whose doomed existence stands as an ominous metaphor for all that surrounds her.

Walt Disney - Hollywood's Dark Prince by Marc Eliot, Deutsch pounds 9.99. The debunking of the West's cultural icons continues apace with this mesmerising and meticulously researched hatchet job on America's legendary cartoonist. Far from being the squeaky-clean uncle everybody took him for, the creator of Bambi and Mickey Mouse was, it transpires, a plagiarising, alcoholic, neo-fascist anti-semite - and that was on his good days. Scattering anecdotes and scalpel-sharp insights in all directions, Eliot propels us through Disney's life and work, from his grim Kansas childhood to his virtual canonisation as symbol of all that was fine and healthy about America. En route we discover a bitter, spiteful, emotional husk who broke strikes, spied for the FBI and who, in the trademark emotional wholesomeness of his animations, was apparently seeking redemption from the purgatory of his own private life.

Twenty Twenty by Nigel Watts, Sceptre pounds 5.99. Watts' rip-roaring fourth novel takes us firmly into Ray Bradbury territory, conjuring images of a futuristic world slumped in terminal, dust-blown decline. Books have been replaced by the sterile horrors of digiback, trashy motel rooms cost $420 a night and the Earth has succumbed to "existentialist crime": "acid spraying, spiking food with poison, dousing with gasoline - it was the new entertainment." Against this apocalyptic backdrop a diseased author types out the remainder of his days in the blasted wastes of northern Canada whilst at a remote Californian research institute scientists work to develop a new virtual reality holiday program for armchair tourists. The two scenarios gradually uncoil towards each other, providing not merely an adrenaline-pumping thriller but also an imaginative critique of the way in which human perceptions are increasingly distorted by the onward rush of technology.

Women in England 1500-1760: A Social History by Anne Laurence, Weidenfield pounds 12.99. Not, perhaps, the most inspiring title, but this remains a meaty, masterful and engrossing study of gender and society from the Reformation to the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Working within a voluminous frame of reference, and skating gracefully from the individual to the general, Laurence explores the jungle of early modern female experience with the sagacity and enthusiasm of a feminist David Attenborough. Marriage, childbirth, sex, work, faith, crime, education - each is hoisted from time's sump and illuminated with charismatic prose. It is much to her credit that she has steered a clear course between the Scylla and Charybdis of feminist historiography, presenting women as neither the victims nor heroines of society; although her overall thesis - that during this period opportunities for females to work and hold office gradually diminished - is undeniably pessimistic.

Consequences by Helen Muir, Pocket Books pounds 5.99. Like a cobra launching itself at a juicy toad, Helen Muir pounces with venomous wit on the twilight world of middle-aged romance. Pushy Hooray journalist Ruth Bly meets and falls for depressive narcoleptic cartoonist Leonard Derbyshire at a singles soiree at the Melstar Hotel. Their juddering, ill-fated courtship is conducted amid a swirling cast of glorious weirdos - flamboyant, snow-rinsed editor Conroy "Sweetie" Sweeting, cross-dressing cavalry officer Captain Tania Galway-Lamb - and leads inexorably to the outer reaches of romantic misadventure. Weaving rib-tickling satire with social commentary, Muir creates an elastic world where eccentricity is the norm and sexual banana-skins lie round every corner.

The Penguin Companion to European Union by Timothy Bainbridge and Anthony Teasdale, Penguin pounds 9.99. This is the closest you're likely to come to a clear, concise and readable account of what the European Union's all about, and hence required reading for anyone with the remotest pretensions to elementary Euro-nous. A series of mini-essays, arranged alphabetically, it leads us with admirable clarity and lack of techno-jargon though the history, composition and machinery of the EC. It's the sort of thing you want beside you during News At Ten to explain all those acronyms against which Tory Eurosceptics fulminate so entertainingly.

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