Paperbacks

This week's reviews of the latest literary offerings
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The Independent Culture

The Inquisition by Michael Baigent & Richard Leigh (Penguin, £7.99, 318pp)

The Inquisition by Michael Baigent & Richard Leigh (Penguin, £7.99, 318pp)

Contrary to revisionists who have downplayed the horrors of the Inquisition, the authors of this highly readable account stress that it was barbarous and prolonged. Ignited by Torquemada in the 1490s - one commentator remarked on his "unwearied assiduity" - the "unabated ferocity" of the Spanish Inquisition continued for 200 years and was only formally concluded in 1834. Baigent and Leigh insist that the spirit of the Inquisition lives on. They cite numerous examples of its aftershock, including the doctrine of papal infallibility forced through by Pius IX in 1870, the Index of Prohibited Books (ended in 1966) and the Vatican's space observatory in Arizona, apparently aimed at converting extraterrestrials.

Sisters by Penelope Farmer (Penguin, £9.99, 439pp)

When Nancy Mitford declared that "Sisters are a defence against life's cruel circumstances", her sister Jessica replied "Sisters are life's cruel circumstances". Anthologies can make for dull reading, but novelist Penelope Farmer's selection of writings on sisterhood (genetic and symbolic) is a cracker. Not only does she preface each new section with an autobiographical sketch , but breaks with editorial convention by including the same author more than once. Literary gems from Virginia Woolf, L P Hartley, Kate Atkinson, John Walsh, and scary siblings Drabble and Byatt.

No Author Better Served edited by Maurice Harmon (Harvard, £13.95, 486pp)

Though this 30-year correspondence between Samuel Beckett and theatre director Alan Schneider will mainly be read by Beckett buffs, there is much to interest a wider audience. When Godot ran foul of the Lord Chamberlain, Beckett changed "arse" to "rump", but insisted that "'He doesn't exist' without 'the bastard' is simply unacceptable to me". Proposals scotched by Beckett included a radio version of Happy Days with Edith Evans and a film of Godot by Roman Polanski. This epistolary friendship ended in 1984 when Schneider was killed while crossing a road to mail a letter to Beckett.

Being Light by Helen Smith (Gollancz, £9.99,186pp)

For a full appreciation of Helen Smith's fantastical second novel, an insider's knowledge of South London is a bonus. While installing a bouncy castle in Brockwell Park, Roy Travers (and his castle) gets blown away by a freak gust of wind. When he fails to return to earth, his wife Sheila suspects that he has been abducted by aliens, and enlists the help of Alison (the detective who made her debut in Smith's first novel Alison in Wonderland.) A screwball comedy that really works: Smith's Brixtonites receive messages via outsized earrings and make excellent use of their one-day Travelcards.

Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban (Picador, £6.99, 435pp)

As this veteran voyager sets sail from Vancouver to Alaska, the first hint of the tempest in store occurs during his farewell to wife and daughter: "Julia said: 'Mommy, what's 'inconsiderate'?'" As before, Raban writes incomparably well about the sea, contrasting his voyage with that of the stolid pioneer George Vancouver. At the mid-point, he is called back to wintry England for the impending death of his father. Another split awaits him at journey's end. His wife tells him she wants to separate. Raban reflects: "Her cruel, cold dismissal reminded me uncomfortably of me." This poignant work is the best so far by a writer whose genius needs the inspiration of movement: his blessing and his curse.

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