Paperbacks

The Worlds Smallest Unicorn and other stories by Shena Mackay | The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief By James Wood | A Foreign Country by Francine Stock | Daughters of Britannia by Katie Hickman | The Man With the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren
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The Independent Culture

The Worlds Smallest Unicorn and other stories by Shena Mackay (Vintage £6.99) Most of the characters in this collection are failures, and if not middle-aged failures, then young failures whose one chance of success flies past them. These moments are quietly made, but there is the occasional sound of a shot being fired. In "A Silver Summer", for instance, a young girl working in an antique shop is subjected to the unwelcome advances of the local stationer's boy. Finally snapping one day, she slaps him and draws blood. Mackay is essentially a writer's writer and her literary style is perhaps overdone in places - if you have an aversion to alliteration this collection will drive you mad - but the poise of her writing suits the moments of slight but painful importance.

The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief By James Wood (Pimlico, £12.50) As the initial quotations from Lukács and Ruskin suggest, this is a volume of essays with one foot in the moral certainties of the past and one in the disruptive theories of the new. Wood's interest lies in literature's moments of fissure, and what caused such moments to happen. Hence Jane Austen is lauded as revolutionary, rather than conservative, for taking the 19th-century novel beyond the limits of the epistolary form, while English novelists of the Fifties and Sixties are berated for their "failure of language". This is an impressively authoritative collection, even if the yoking of such disparate writers under a common banner is a little too easily done.

A Foreign Country by Francine Stock (Vintage, £6.99) This is a novel with an interesting premise which reveals Stock's background as a journalist once specialising in current affairs. Daphne, aged 74, finds her past as a young junior in the War Office, with special responsibility for overseeing the fates of Italian émigrés, catching up with her in the person of brash TV journalist Rachel, girlfriend of her war correspondent son. A survivor of a torpedoed British ship transporting Italian émigrés out of the country has been located by the loathsome Rachel and Daphne's role in the expulsion comes under examination. A curiously uninvolving read, despite the sensitive subject matter and its capable handling by Stock.

Daughters of Britannia by Katie Hickman (Flamingo £7.99) A fascinating and revealing account of the wives of diplomats throughout the centuries. What can their experiences contribute to our understanding of dangerous or turbulent times? As Hickman points out, these are women who "represent a lacuna in history", and their letters and diaries provide an opportunity to fill that gap. From Isabel, wife of 19th century traveller Richard Burton, who insisted on being taught fencing so that she could protect her husband, to Lady Wortley Montagu's entertaining letters to Alexander Pope, a portrait of redoubtable yet often lonely women emerges, as well as glimpses of daily life in Czarist Russia, or tea-taking with Chinese Empresses.

The Man With the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren (Rebel Inc, £7.99) Algren's award-winning novel, published in 1949, has the hall-marks of the urban underworld we now expect: casual misogyny and gritty, hard-faced men concealing a small spark of hope in the face of poverty and despair. Frankie Machine attempts to escape the confines of his environment as well as his bitter, crippled wife Sophie. This aspect in particular makes it a classic portrayal of post-war attitudes to women, with Sophie's negative image and the abused and childishly sexy good time girl Molly. Stylish, atmospheric and moving, and as black and white as a film noir, it's almost too much of its time to transcend it but is none the worse for that.

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