Click to follow
The Independent Culture
! Reef by Romesh Gunesekera, Granta £5.99. If the Booker were awarded purely for charm, this 1994 shortlistee would have won doing handsprings. It's a slim coming-of-age story from Sri Lanka, in which the narrator Triton, at 11, becomes the houseboy of the distinguished Mr Salgado and then works his way up to be his cook and manservant. But the focus of Triton's interest (and increasingly ours) is his tantalising, only partial share of Salgado's wider life - his profession (as a marine biologist, concerned with the erosion of the reef around the coast) and his love for Miss Nili, a Christian hotel owner who brings desire and ultimately disruption to the scientist's calm bachelorhood. At the same time the political state of the country declines from the paradisial to the horrendous. A wholly graceful, truthful and admirable book.

! Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectic of Poodle Play by Ben Watson, Quartet £12. In this extraordinary homage Watson, a committed Zappa fan and member of the SWP, loads his idol's 57-album oeuvre with the entire baggage of intellectual modernism. The footnotes alone strike awe. Far surpassing the usual obsessive magpie collection of detail we know from the likes of AJ Webber, this is no less than a frontal assault on authoritarian capitalism from the perspective of Zappology. The tendentiousness should not entirely put you off. Watson's book is stocked with genuine insights and his case for Zappa as a hero of the avant garde - a force to challenge any reigning cultural and political assumptions - is ably made.

! The Moon Rising by Steven Kelly, Abacus £5.99. Snowbound in an Italian Alps hotel, a shady "businessman" and his entourage are attended to by the night porter and his nephew and apprentice (our narrator) Andreas. The company mixes exotic cocktails and complains its way through the night, while Andreas broods on his past love for a bookish young whore, Elisa, a girl given to quoting Cyril Connolly (I kid you not) and sleepwalking. Although it is very slight both in plot and character, I liked it for its bizarre Nabokovian touches.

! A Mind of My Own: My Life With Robert Maxwell by Betty Maxwell, Pan £5.99. The author tells how she fainted on first seeing "Ivan du Maurier", Maxwell's peculiar 1944 alias. Much of her view From The Ego's Nest is similarly and appropriately hyperbolic. The blurb calls it "the stuff of Greek tragedy", but the case is more of Shakespeare: "I have a whole school of tongues in this belly of mine; and not a tongue of them all speaks any other word but my name." Cap'n Bob's moniker was an obsession of his; he constantly changed it until he settled on one he liked, then defended it viciously at law. He'd probably have liked to sue his wife, when she wrote to him in 1980: "You have become harsh, cruel, uncompromising, dictatorial, exceedingly selfish and inconsiderate, totally unaware of the feelings of others, least of all those ... you take a sadistic pleasure in crushing and humiliating." Dutiful public wife she was in his lifetime; now, more in fret than fury, she takes a 700-page posthumous revenge.

! Eminent Churchillians by Andrew Roberts, Phoenix £7.99. The case here is that Churchill was not really a Tory, but a Liberal (albeit a pugnacious one) who was so awed by socialism - not Stalin's, but that of his wartime partner Attlee - that he allowed its peacetime administration to appease the unions, unleash immigration and generally muzzle capital. The effect of the milksop (though charming) leadership of the Churchill, Eden and Macmillan cabinets during the 1950s was to ease our path into the unholy mess of late 20th century Britain, which Roberts sums up dismissively as "Italy with rockets". But the aforementioned PMs are not really his villains. Roberts instead singles out the likes of Dickie Mountbatten and Walter Monckton. It is an acerbic thesis, encapsulated in the detail that, when Churchill moved back into No 10 in 1951, he brought his famous red "Action This Day" stickers with him. They were never used.

'Terry Street', a Bte Noire Special Edition (£6), marks 25 years since Douglas Dunn's eponymous first book. With his 18 poems are photographs by Robert Whitaker, taken in 1968: a powerful evocation of the vibrancy and sadness of the last days of Hull's cleared slums, recent but invisible history