Paperbacks

<i>Virtue</i> by Serena Mackesy | <i>Burnt Diaries</i> by Emma Tennant | <i>A Man of Contradictions: a life of A L Rowse </i>by Richard Ollard
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The Independent Culture

Virtue by Serena Mackesy (Arrow, £5.99, 460pp) Anna Waters was virtuous until the age of 16. Daughter of the famous feminist Grace Waters (child genius and Nobel Prize winner), she spent her youth swotting for her 17 O levels and arrived at university ignorant of all the things "normal" people take for granted - like friendship, trainers and EastEnders. Then she met Harriet Moresby, daughter of an even more famous mother, the recently departed starlet/ international charity worker, Godiva Fawcett.

Virtue by Serena Mackesy (Arrow, £5.99, 460pp) Anna Waters was virtuous until the age of 16. Daughter of the famous feminist Grace Waters (child genius and Nobel Prize winner), she spent her youth swotting for her 17 O levels and arrived at university ignorant of all the things "normal" people take for granted - like friendship, trainers and EastEnders. Then she met Harriet Moresby, daughter of an even more famous mother, the recently departed starlet/ international charity worker, Godiva Fawcett.

Post-graduation, the two friends set up home together in a "boat shed" along the Chelsea embankment, and embark on a life of serious underachievement. Working as "school-girl" hostesses at a dodgy Soho joint, they spend their spank-free time downing bottles of "Cab Sauv" and sleeping with Aussie backpackers. Their quest for anonymity is rudely interrupted, however, when Godiva's uncorrupted body is exhumed from the family vault, and the press packs come sniffing for a whiff of something less saintly.

Like her bestselling debut The Temp, Mackesy's irreverent new novel is packaged as froth, but turns out to be rather more substantial. As knowledgeable about 18th-century garden design as Aapri facial scrub, Harriet and Anna sound more like Clarissa Dickson-Wright and Jennifer Paterson than your typical 20-something ladettes, and get on with the job of deconstructing their troublesome mothers with brainy gusto.

Best of all is Mackesy's ear for social comedy. The funniest moments in her book capture the anxious one-upmanship of academic functions. Landed with one smug boffin, Anna finds herself wanting to scream back: "I'm not interested!... I'm a waitress! I like pop music and staying up late and action movies and going on package holidays and getting chatted up in dark corners and dancing and lying around reading OK! magazine!'" Instead she just smiles.

Burnt Diaries by Emma Tennant (Canongate, £6.99, 231pp) Ted Hughes's dour mug looms from the cover, but he doesn't enter Emma Tennant's sparky memoir until almost a third of the way through the book. Up to this point, Tennant enjoyably recalls the travails of setting up her literary magazine Bananas during the druggy Seventies. Then she falls for Hughes, adoring his "magnificent" looks and the "force-field of his personality". But the graceless behaviour of the womanising poet laureate belies his charisma. He gives her books, while she gives him a Mont Blanc pen and coughs up for their assignations in cheap hotels. Soon, both Bananas and their affair are on the skids. Tennant concludes that her hero is "lacking in 'human' qualities when it comes to love".

A Man of Contradictions: a life of A L Rowse by Richard Ollard (Penguin, £9.99, 368pp) A human firework, A L Rowse rose to academic distinction from humble Cornish origins. In this fascinating portrait, Richard Ollard praises the stream of historical works resulting from Rowse's "inexhaustible energy". Yet the man was clearly an ogre, savaging friends when they disagreed with him or, worse still, gained promotion ahead of him. When his friend C V Wedgwood was awarded the Order of Merit, Rowse was "wounding and offensive". According to Ollard, his "evil, destructive egocentricity" was directly inherited from his mother. It comes as something of a surprise to realise that this aesthete and elitist, who loathed "the Idiot People", died as recently as 1997 at the impressive age of 93.

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