Paperbacks

King by John Berger | The Potato by Larry Zuckerman | False Pretences by Lee Langley | What's New Pussycat? by Alexandra Potter | Surviving in Stroke City by Gerry Anderson
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The Independent Culture

King by John Berger (Bloomsbury, £6.99, 231pp) Art critic, novelist, philosopher, sociologist and Alpine-dweller John Berger has never been a fan of cities or urban ways, though he seems to have a soft spot for bikers and lorry drivers. His latest novel is set on the edges of a particularly ugly urban sprawl, a cardboard shanty town called St Valery, caught between a four lane super strada and the sea.

The book's narrator is a philosophising dog called King. While Berger hints at the possibility that King isn't really a dog, but a mutt-like human, it makes no difference to the subsequent discourse whether he walks on two legs or four. King is a super articulate canine who lives with his master and mistress, Vico and Vica - a couple who do daily battle with the hopelessness that begins "when you cannot imagine anything ever being dry again" - in a corrugated iron hut

Like the rest of the inhabitants of the dump the couple survive on other people's left-overs. Vico sells the radishes he grows on stolen soil, and Vica, steals water from the local garage. As they forage, they chat to King about the meaning of life.

As in Berger's other novels, this kind of Beckett-like dialogue can verge on the toe-curling - though the author's Euro-readership probably go for these passages big time. Vico, who claims to be a descendant of the philosopher Giambattista Vico, competes with King when it comes to gnomic utterances, though it is the non-human King who has the last say. The novel ends in scenes of destruction, as bulldozers demolish the shanty town to make way for a sports stadium. Not a book to read when feeling low, as King remarks: "to read a man needs to love himself, not much, but a little". EH

The Potato by Larry Zuckerman (Pan, £6.99, 304pp) Unlikely though it may sound, the potato has inspired a fascinating work. Zuckerman traces the humble spud from its exotic Andean origins. After hesitating for two centuries, Europeans went mad for potatoes around 1800, though Cobbett fulminated against the "lazy root". He had a point, because potato blight (also from South America) caused famine in France, Holland and, terribly, in Ireland. Overdependence on the ravaged root resulted in the Irish population declining by half from 1845 to 1911.

Barbara Trapido's latest novel, 'The Travelling Hornplayer', is published by Penguin

False Pretences by Lee Langley (Vintage, £6.99, 290pp) Lee langley's three previous novels were all set in India, but her d'"ébut short story collection is more Eurocentric, taking in hilltop locations in Wales, France and Italy. Many of the stories feature two friends, Susan and Josie, often on holiday together, and often annoyed by each other - "Press on, shall we?" being Josie's cue for signalling the end of an over-long cappuccino break, or diversion from the agreed itinerary. By the end of the collection you feel you may well have been on holiday with the pair yourself.

What's New Pussycat? by Alexandra Potter (Fourth Estate, £5.99, 310pp) Delilah, the heroine of Potter's first novel, is the kind of relentlessly sassy, twentyish female who makes you think twice about getting out of bed in the morning. Bored by her waitressing job in Bradford, Delilah decides to start over in London, land of pashmina shawls and minimalist apartments. Pet whippet safely stowed in the back of her mint-green Beetle, she heads for Notting Hill and straight into new clothes and an aspirational love life. Lite-romantic comedy as Delilah decides between a smoothie media boy and a chef in sandals.

Surviving in Stroke City by Gerry Anderson (Arrow, £6.99, 211pp) Ranging far beyond Derry/ Londonderry, these staccato pieces reveal Anderson is more unbuttoned away from the microphone. He overhears a Disneyland Snow White hiss "Fuck off, sonny" to a Californian brat. He recalls playing with Ronnie Hawkins ("If you join my band, you won't make much money, but you'll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra"). He slams the Irish Christian Brothers who imparted bigoted, useless education. But his deepest loathing is reserved for those who offer guns to innocents full of whiskey and Irish pride.

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