PAPERBACKS

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Archivist by Martha Cooley, Abacus £6.99

The Archivist by Martha Cooley, Abacus £6.99

Martha Cooley's remarkably self-possessed first novel reveals a sophisticated approach to fiction. Her quiet, solitary hero is Matthias, who by the age of four knows everything about his namesake - the disciple who replaced Judas Iscariot. Matthias is the archivist in charge of a new bequest of letters from T S Eliot to a lifelong friend. They deal, in part, with the breakdown of Eliot's marriage to Vivienne, "his incarcerated nightmare". The letters lead this self-contained man to a confrontation with a young female poet whose bold sensuality provokes Matthias out of his repression. The result is a finely judged balancing act between literary detective story and an exegesis of personal guilt.

Cannabis Culture: A Journey through Disputed Territory by Patrick Matthews, Bloomsbury £12.99

Matthews won last year's Glenfiddich Award for Drink Book of the Year for his guide to small producers; here he tries to do the same for the holy herb. He interviews the connoisseurs and cultivators (most entertaining), and includes the obligatory "science bit". Since the social category classified as "prosperous professionals" is the most likely to use ganja - and to carry on into their 30s - he is surely on to a commercial winner. But given that gangsters who import Moroccan hashish and adulterate it with bitumen (which is also used to surface roads) perhaps we need to assess the facts and debunk the mythology. Which is what Matthews does, coolly and dispassionately, with no signs of short-term memory loss.

Vintage Book of War Stories edited by Sebastian Faulks and Jorg Hensgen, Vintage £7.99

The editors' purpose in this anthology is to extract episodes from novels that take wars from different periods and zones as a fictional background. Thus the Second World War is represented by Alistair MacLean, in the 1950s, writing about the Atlantic convoys; John Fowles in the 1960s, describing the German occupation of a Greek island; and, in the 1990s, by Robert Harris's enigmatic drama at Bletchley Park. The range is international, the impeccable standards of writing never dip; this is some of the finest writing about war this century. Taken as a whole, the stories depict a soldier's experience from call-up, battle, companionship and fatigue, to leave, hospital, loved ones and trauma. But Celine has the last word on despair.

A Sight for Sore Eyes by Ruth Rendell, Arrow £5.99

Since her first novel was published in 1964, this CBE and life peer has won more awards than most serial killers have had life sentences. Her latest bestseller is as compellingly scary as ever. Teddy Brex emerges from a loveless childhood a conventionally handsome but autistic young man. The equally nubile Francine Hill, traumatised by the murder of her mother, is his damsel in distress. Rendell specialises in damaged minds at work in a society that is morally adrift. So what should be a story about two nice young people, isn't. "Francine made [Teddy] feel better and his eyes were sore when they couldn't feast on her." Trouble is, Teddy has already committed two murders. Look behind you, Francine.

Ways of Escape by Graham Greene, Vintage £6.99

Greene's first "fragment of autobiography" closed the record at the age of 27. So he devised a follow-up account of the circumstances under which his books were conceived and written. This means that he does not have to reveal too much of his private life, but we can go to other sources for that. What he does give the reader is the memoir of an inveterate explorer who seeks out people and situations "at the dangerous edge of things": Papa Doc in Haiti, and Alexander Korda in Hollywood. He is clear about his motivation - escape - and the writing is suffused with melancholy regret, not for what he writes, one feels, but for what he has left out.

Comments