PAPERBACKS

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The Illusionist by Jennifer Johnston, Minerva pounds 6.99. Where have we read this premise: mousy woman marries charismatic man and is whisked off to live in the country, where she is overwhelmed by a sense that whole chunks of his life and his past are being hidden from her? The irascible husband with the Max de Winter profile is here called Martyn, a conjuror who works a lot with pigeons. And, as if to multiply the Du Maurier references, the mousy wife, Stella, has a phobia about birds. But Johnston is too polished a writer not to bring her own particular skills to the case. She eschews the melodramatic comfort-read of a Bronte- style denouement in favour of a more realistic wrap, sweetly sad rather than bitterly happy.

Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s by Ann Douglas, Papermac pounds 12. Douglas's sequel to her The Feminisation of American Culture tells how the New England matriarchy that had ruled American art and letters at the end of the 19th century was toppled by a new generation of New Yorkers just after the Great War. As the Empire State, Chrysler and other archetypal buildings rose above them, these individuals were sceptical, macho, alcoholic and flippant. But, despite the phallic architecture, they were not all men. Nor were they necessarily white, for the Harlem Renaissance was happening and Manhattan was Ellington's, Robeson's and Langston Hughes's kind of town. Their pens and brushes redrew the boundaries of cultural life, netting in many previously alien elements - jazz, broadcasting, advertising, film, night clubs, cocktails, cars (New York had more cars than the whole of Europe) and even the hoaxes and stunts of P T Barnum and Harry Houdini. All in all, to read this wonderfully rich book is to be in there at the birth of the modern.

Love's Work by Gillian Rose, Vintage pounds 5.99. The genre of memoir that deals in the intimate details of an illness and a death (it's been called the "autopathography") is becoming so popular that we're bound to be hearing soon that it's the New Rock 'n' Roll (but the New Blues would be more appropriate). This slim and shining example, by an academic philosopher who has recently died of cancer in her forties, is intense and witty. Rose argues that "while the sorrows of love are endlessly engaging, illness is intrinsically not," but then goes on to prove herself wrong, taking the reader on a fine, unflinching exploration of pain, loss, philosophy, history, sex, illness, medicine, love and death. It is apparently rambling but there's a deep underlying structure that isn't yielded up after only one reading. The final impression is never less than clear and deep - that Rose was a very good writer and a remarkable character.

4-2 by David Thomson, Bloomsbury pounds 6.99. In case you need to ask, this title is a scoreline, and if anyone's still fumbling they obviously can't remember the Sixties. Thomson takes the 1966 World Cup final as a hinge on which post-war England swung. It is in part a kick-by-kick narrative of the match itself, a history of the national football team, an evocation of London as it turned from black and white into colour, and a memoir of Thomson's own London childhood. Domestic arrangements in the family were certainly unusual, with his father weekend-commuting to his wife and kids from the never-mentioned arms of another woman in St Albans. A dark cloud of generational conflict hangs over much of the book, personified in the tense, lonely figure of Alf Ramsay, a baffled father to his team, unable to understand the new zeitgeist and clinging instead to the gritty principles of a wartime NCO. It was the spirit of El Alamein, then, not the Chelsea Drugstore, that in Thomson's view won us the Cup.

Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders, Vintage pounds 5.99. Saunders's stories peer with matter-of-fact clarity into the future, a post-disaster civilisation in which humanity retreats into a sort of second childhood. The games and lived-out fantasies, enabled by holograms, computers and the type of simulation technology that Michael Crichton once imagined for the film Westworld, are interrupted by violence and the pungency of real anger, uncontrolled desire, raw need. In the background of more than one story lurks a militia culture which we are clearly meant to connect with the contemporary American scene. Saunders takes risks with emotion, flirting with melodrama and sentimentality, but rescuing himself through many flashes of true wit and invention.

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