Paperbacks: Mothers and Sons<br/> The View From Castle Rock<br/> Is This What You Want?<br/>Kalooki Nights<br/> God's War<br/>Forward Book of Poetry 2008<br/>Grumpy Old Wit

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The Independent Culture

Mothers and Sons, By Colm Tóibí (Picador £7.99)

There is nothing unconditional or comforting about the kind of parental love portrayed in Colm Tóibí*'s first collection of short fiction. Set mostly in modern day Ireland, these nine stories concentrate on pivotal moments between mothers and sons – a series of silent showdowns that result in stalemate rather than release.

Tóibí*'s much-acclaimed novel The Master – a fictionalised life of Henry James – was a psychological portrait of a man more interested in other people's lives than his own. In "The Use of Reason", the collection's opening story, the theme is played out in a different guise. From a room high above the city a master criminal – a successful art thief – likes to watch others at play while he plots their fate. When we meet his alcoholic mother, it becomes clear from whom he has inherited his gift for deception and deceit. The entries that follow are no less nuanced in tone and content. In the story "A Priest in the Family", a mother is the last to know about allegations of sexual abuse against her clergyman son; in "A Summer Job" a teenage son is packed off for the summer holidays to care for his dying grandmother. Humour is in short supply in a collection that stealthily maps out shifting family allegiances – conflicts every bit as intractable as those waged outside the front door. EH

The View From Castle Rock, By Alice Munro (Vintage £7.99)

Alice Munro's plucky paternal forebears were lowland shepherds who exchanged Scotland for Nova Scotia in the early 1800s. This near-atavistic family memoir re-creates their lives before steaming ahead into the 20th-century and catching up with Munro's more immediate history. "Self-dramatisation got short shrift in our family," writes Munro. "Though now I think of it, it wasn't exactly the word they used. They spoke of calling attention to yourself. The opposite of which was not exactly modesty, but the refusal to feel any need to turn your life into a story." Munro bucks the genetic trend. EH

Is This What You Want? Ed. Kate Pullinger (Bloomsbury £7.99)

In one of the more inviting anthologies of the year, contributions by six well-known authors (including Rachel Cusk, Tessa Hadley, Nancy Lee and Kate Pullinger) have been teamed up alongside the work of 12 new women writers, all of whom were shortlisted for the Asham Short Story Award 2007. The enterprise seems to have raised the bar for everyone concerned: from the competition's winner Marian Garvey, whose story, "All That's Left", captures life for two young sisters following an untimely death, to the editor Kate Pullinger's tongue-in-cheek tale about a man who is being stalked by his therapist. EH

Kalooki Nights, By Howard Jacobson (Vintage £7.99

In full-blown Rothian mode, Howard Jacobson's ninth novel tackles the infinitely complex question of what it is to be Jewish. At the heart of the narrative are the intertwined lives of school boy friends, Max Glickman and Manny Washinsky. Instead of climbing trees they spend their Manchester childhood hunched over a copy of Scourge of the Swastika, and grading the women of the Third Reich. Decades later, when Manny is arrested for gassing his Orthodox parents to death, Max is left to agonise over his motivation. Ribald and splenetic, this very funny journey around post-war Anglo-Jewry exposes every last taboo. EH

God's War, By Christopher Tyerman (Penguin £12.99)

From Pope Urban's sermon inciting holy war in 1095 to the Muslim capture of the last stronghold of Acre in 1291, the major Crusades brought endless bloodshed, suffering, failure (for the Christian powers) and, not least, a toxic legacy of distrust that poisons the modern world. So why did they ignite such passion and last so long, even (as Tyerman notes in this magnificent account) inspiring Columbus? His answer, unfolding over a vast and brilliantly painted canvas, involves recreating the Crusader mindset as something more than a "lingering bad smell" in our past. This is no whitewash, and it uses Muslim sources superbly, but it does offer a truly epic feat of hindsight-free history. BT

Forward Book of Poetry 2008 (Forward £8.99)

As always, the annual anthology of poems shortlisted or commended by the Forward prizes' judges will delight the browser and baffle the sloganiser. Trend-sniffers may feel marooned; the rest of us can zigzag pleasurably between senior sorcerors such as Eavan Boland, Alice Oswald and Paul Muldoon, and junior magicians including Daljit Nagra, Joanna Boulter and Nick Laird. A collage, not a diagram, of poetry now: re-configure as you like it, and enjoy. BT

Grumpy Old Wit, By Rosemarie Jarski (Ebury Press £7.99)

Perhaps only a certified misanthrope would say so, but there is something in the cumulative effect of other people's misery that is curiously uplifting. Is your life "divided into the terrible and the miserable" (Woody Allen)? Does fate wait around every corner "with a sock full of wet sand" (PG Wodehouse)? Then this reassuring collection of truisms from the Eeyores and Larkins of this world is for you. Heaven knows we're miserable now. KG

To order these books call: 0870 079 8897