Paperbacks Reviewed

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The Independent Culture
John Major by Penny Junor (Penguin, pounds 7.99) It is evident that the author has a soft spot ("winning smile... humor-ous ... court-eous") for this deceptive fellow, whose rocket-fuelled ambition is cloaked by a perfectly genuine politeness. Aside from this winning combination, Major's greatest asset appears to be the excellent Norma. Junor's gift for the telling detail adds greatly to the interest of a peculiarly domestic political biography. But the wellsprings of Major's extremism - like his ruinously costly denation-alisations - remain unexplained.

Women by Naim Attallah (Quartet, pounds 1O) Chatty and profound, batty and intelligent, this 1,000-page trawl is like a wonderful dinner party organised by a perceptive, quirky host. Guests range from the hugely engaging (Victoria Glendinning) to the complacently irritating (Anita Roddick). Since this book is a reprint of the 1987 edition, the notes on interviewees are now wildly inaccurate. Hindsight adds a terrible poignancy to Margaux Hemingway's comment: "The advantages of being a woman are a mile long. I can't think of a single disadvantage."

Johnson's Dictionary: A Modern Selection by E.L. McAdam and George Milne (Cassell, pounds 9.99) This splendidly tangy selection of 5,000 definitions is the ideal companion to Boswell's Life. It contains all the old chestnuts ("network: anything reticulated, or decussated, with interstices between the intersections"), but every page is packed with gems of humour and opinion ("witticism: a mean attempt at wit"). Even in truncated form, Johnson's masterpiece is still useful.

Now and Then by William Corlett (Abacus, pounds 6.99) Exploring his deceased father's effects, a publisher discovers a package of boyhood photographs which sends his mind hurtling back to a love affair at his rigidly orthodox public school. In chapters which oscillate over a 30-year gap, we discover that it was the one true passion in Christopher Metcalfe's life. The lover's reunion, when it comes, is a crushing and violent disappointment. Yet soon afterwards, in a Spanish wood, Chris's sexuality gains release "from its lifetime sentence". Not a word is misplaced in this subtle exploration of middle-class inhibition.

The Vanishing Princess by Jenny Diski (Phoenix, 5.99) As prickly as the thicket of thorns that surround the vanishing princess in the collection's title story, Jenny Diski's fictions always hide a prize at their heart. No sleeping beauties, her heroines are always ready to take the carnal initiative, though never of a conventional kind. In Housewife an adulterous woman from Sidcup receives a pig's liver as a token of her lover's esteem, while in Leaper a novelist's trip to the local gym ends in unexpected sex and a tragedy on the London Underground. Less intense, though no less sensuous, is Bath Time - the tale of a woman whose childhood memories of Dettol-clouded baths set her on a life-long mission to design the perfect bathroom. Will appeal to white tile and chrome fetishists everywhere.

Independence Day by Richard Ford (Harvill Press, 6.99) Richard Ford's 1995 Pulitzer prize-winning sequel to The Sportswriter is not an easy read. Five years on, Frank Bascombe is happily divorced and about to set off on a weekend with his son. Big on "leggy blondes" and male bonding, Ford's latest is disappointing schmaltz.

Baby Alarm! by John Crace (Vista, 4.99) Having passed his 20s "in a bit of a blur in front of the TV", journalist John Crace was unprepared for the onset of 30-something blues. Becoming a father seemed like a good way of cheering himself up and making his friends jealous. His frank, light-hearted confessions of a first-time parent are less self-indulgent than most journalistic outpourings on the subject.

John Dollar by Marianne Wiggins (Flamingo, pounds 5.99) This year saw Marianne Wiggins's most recent novel, Eveless Eden, nominated for the Orange Prize and the reissue of her 1989 novel, John Dollar. A strange and intoxicating read, John Dollar tells the story of Charlotte, a World War I widow sent to Burma to foster the "standards of the Empire in British Children", who ends up falling for a rugged ship's captain, and eventually finds herself shipwrecked on a desert island with a group of her young female charges. Told in beautifully lush dream-like passages, the novel's tropical sensuality is countered by a denouement as shocking and grisly as Lord of the Flies.

Heaven Can Come Later by Ann Walker (Arrow 5.99): Medium and spiritualist Ann Walker has not had an easy life. The child of an abusive and violent father, her autobiography details a painful childhood spent in ill-fitting shoes and unfamiliar houses. Finding relief in over the counter drugs at the age of 15, she ends up falling in love with a married man, having his children and serving time in jail. But these moving and precisely written memories take on a sudden turn for the incongruous with the arrival of a 6ft tall, muscle-bound Red Indian in a loin cloth in her living room in Hillingdon. Not only does White Arrow turn out to have been her husband in another life, but her vital new connection with the "spirit people", whose early visitors to her home include her long dead father-in-law and uncle Bob - "a lovely man". Chaque a son gout?

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