Paperbacks: The Probable Future<br></br>The Swing Around<br></br>The Book of Israel<br></br>The Book of Illusions<br></br>Orientalism

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The Independent Culture

The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman (Chatto & Windus, £10.99, 322pp)

There's something a little gift-shop hokey about Alice Hoffman's fiction, but a little tempting, too. Her impressive early novels, Practical Magic, Seventh Heaven and Turtle Moon, were well-realised stories of family dysfunction, sprinkled with the lightest touch of magic realism. This 16th novel, however, finds Hoffman going heavy on the fairy dust.

Like many of her novels, The Probable Future is set in a small Massachusetts village with a mythic past. The hamlet of Unity has been home to 13 generations of Sparrow women, each of whom have awoken on their 13th birthdays blessed with witchy powers. The first, Rebecca Sparrow, was impervious to pain, her daughter Sarah needed no sleep, and Jenny could dream other's dreams. Stella, the 13th Sparrow girl, was born feet first, and as the novel opens she turns 13. Her double-edged gift: to be able to predict the manner in which people will die. She foresees the murder of a young blonde and her prescience is enough to get her father, Will Avery, arrested for murder. The family move back to Unity to escape the ensuing controversy, and here the real business of bewitchment begins. Tangled gardens and gingerbread clapboards provide the backdrop to a series of unlikely love stories, redemptions and horticultural triumphs. Hoffman's mellifluous prose and lush incantations drift drowsily overhead, and it's hard not to be lulled into thinking that this brand of gentle Gothic, like gift-shop pot pourri, might be a good idea after all.

The Swing Around by Barbara Anderson (Vintage, £6.99, 303pp)

Known for her pithy novels of middle-class Kiwi life, here Barbara Anderson lets her satiric talents loose on the foreign-office drinks circuit. Set in the New Zealand of 20 years ago, the novel describes a disastrous good-will mission ("swing around") by the country's Minister for Culture, Hamish Carew, to Asia and Hong Kong. Also on the trip are Hamish's wife Molly (too straight to be ambassadorial) and young government flunkies, Freddy and Violet, both in pursuit of decidedly undiplomatic love lives. Farcical moments occur over the boeuf Wellington, though, like Molly, it's hard not to yearn for something even more substantial.

The Book of Israel by Jeremy Gavron (Scribner, £7.99, 279pp)

Jeremy Gavron's prize-winning second novel tells the story of a Jewish family who for generations labour under the weighty forename of "Israel". Kicking off in the pogroms of Lithuania, and finishing up in the food halls of Marks & Spencer, he follows three different Israels from the same male line as they survive and adapt to the cataclysmic events of the last century. The novel's multiple narrative is handled well, although don't pay too much attention to its unleavened opening chapters. Gavron loosens up as post-millennium Hendon enters his sights.

The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster (Faber and Faber, £7.99, 321pp)

If you've never fallen under the spell of the silent movie era, then Paul Auster's novel might change your mind. The Book of Illusions alternates between the story of Hector Mann, a master of slapstick who disappeared into the Hollywood Hills in the 1920s, and a 1990s New England academic who writes about Hector's films as a form of therapy after his wife and two sons are killed in a plane crash. Auster's descriptions of these imagined silents bring out the classy writer in him. In comparison, the novel's off-screen love story and dialogue fall flat. This is his most engaging book to date.

Orientalism by Edward Said (Penguin Classics, £10.99, 396pp)

The Palestinian-American thinker first published this great account of how the West misinterpreted the East in 1978. A quarter-century on, it remains a landmark of committed scholarship. Although it enjoyed a worldwide vogue in left-wing circles, Orientalism is at heart an erudite, close-focus study of the imperial-age experts and administrators whose quest for knowledge about Muslim and Asian cultures went hand-in-glove with the drive to control them. Some critics thought Said simplified their motives. Yet, as a new preface sadly shows, today's toxic clichés about Islam and Arabs make his radical humanism more timely than ever.