Paperbacks: Reviewed

The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey (Faber, pounds 5.99)

Endowed with one of the most prodigious imaginations in modern fiction, Carey sets this disturbing fantasy on two imaginary islands, each with an invented culture, patois and technology. The first half concerns the birth and early years of the severely disabled hero in a quirky theatrical family. In the second half, he adopts a weird persona (a mythical mouse) in a broken-down travelling circus. It's an odd but compelling work, with traces of Sterne, Borges and Angela Carter.

Ghosts of Manila by James Hamilton-Paterson (Vintage, pounds 5.99)

Beneath Manila's photochemical haze, a police inspector pursues a female gangster running a drugs and child-kidnapping syndicate. Tangentially involved are two English interlopers, an anthropologist and an archaeologist, attempting in separate ways to dig beneath the city's teeming surface. The storylines rarely mesh, but the result is an utterly enthralling portrait of one of the world's most corrupt cities, with journalistic set-pieces in superb cool prose.

Murderers and Other Friends by John Mortimer (Penguin, pounds 6.99)

A hour of TV drama, the author informs us, should ideally contain three plots. This collection of memories follows similar lines, oscillating between courtroom (appealing villains, outlandish judges), family (Lear- like father, under-appreciated mother) and showbiz (Niven, a delight, Rex Harrison, a shit). Always entertaining, these breezy recollections are unrevealing about the author. Can he really be as genial as all that? Former partner Penelope said otherwise.

The English Pub: A History by Peter Haydon (Hale, pounds 11.99)

"A tavern chair is the throne of human felicity," declared Dr Johnson. Even then, the golden age of the tavern was at an end, ousted by gaudy gin palaces. Afterwards came any number of short-lived fashions, such as the craze for multi-barred premises in the 1870s. Whatever the fads of big brewers, the humble ale-house survived. Or it did until recently, when the pub reached a nadir in the hands of marketing men. Towards the end, Haydon's sober account of the boozer turns into a lament.

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston (Corgi pounds 4.99)

Remember the Ebola virus, which caused a worldwide frisson last year? Just days after infection, its victims became viral bombs. Originating as a New Yorker article, Preston's pursuit of the ghastly bug is the most addictive read you'll come across this year. Yet, even for the unsqueamish, some parts are virtually unreadable. Far from new, Ebola is one of the world's oldest organisms. On the plus side, outbreaks are rare and quickly burn out. But for sheer horror, fictional monsters don't compare.

A Time of Terror by James Cameron (Writers and Readers, pounds 7.99)

Though present at the time, the author is not included in the infamous cover photo, dating from 1930, showing two recently lynched black men. James Cameron was due to join them, a noose already round his neck, when he was saved at the last moment by the intervention of an unknown woman. Sixty years on, he has published his own graphic account of the incident. Each moment is vividly recalled and his indignation remains understandably white-hot. Mothers and Other Lovers by Joanna Briscoe (Phoenix, pounds 5.99)

As with first-time novelists of her generation, Joanna Briscoe's territory is Seventies family life, where parents are known by their first names, and A-levels are a matter of choice. The Strachans have decamped to the West Country, and Eleanor, 17, finds herself trapped in the fuggy proximity of her too-laid-back parents. Her frustration and misery are captured with shocking physicality and nerve.

I'm Here I Think, Where are You? Letters from a Touring Actor by Timothy West (Coronet Books, pounds 5.99)

This collection contains only one side of the "torrid correspondence" between Timothy West and his wife Prunella Scales over 31 years of touring - the less interesting side. A better actor than writer, West delivers his strangely colourless insights with the careful jocularity of a Forties radio announcer. Let's hope they don't speak to each other like that at home.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron (Penguin, pounds 6.99)

In this account of his experiences in central Asia, Colin Thubron takes you on journeys to places so strange you've never heard of them, and introduces you to people so inscrutable they have the quality of creatures in a fairy tale. Thubron's quiet voice never gets in the way of his landscapes: vast radioactive steppes, rose-coloured mountains and knotty beetroot fields.

True Romance by Helen Zahavi (Minerva, pounds 5.99)

The grimy little girl from Bratislava likes the hushed plushness of Max's London flat. She even likes it when he plunges her head under the bubble bath. Even better when his friend turns up and both of them take turns unzipping their flies. That the author is a woman supposedly makes the heroine's pleasure in humiliation okay, but the tale, told in the dissociated voice of a pornographer, palls after a couple of scenarios.

The Grass Dancer by Susan Power (Picador, pounds 5.99)

Set under the low skies of North Dakota, this novel opens with a traditional powwow on a Sioux reservation. Through the stories of several generations of Thunderers and Wind Soldiers, Susan Power, like Louise Erdrich, interweaves past and present, magic and realism. Modern-day Native Americans may go to Stanford and drive pick-up trucks, but through the rustling grasses the voices of their ancestors still sing.

Debrett's Guide to Bereavement by Charles Mosley (Headline, pounds 7.99)

Can you bury your beloved in the back garden? And what do you do if you move house and want to take the bones with you? The answers to practical questions like these do not faze Mosley in this straightforward guide. But be warned: while Castle Howard may be able to get away with a mausoleum, burying a body underneath your asparagus patch will reduce the asking price of most ordinary semis.

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