The Map and the Territory, By Michael Houellebecq
Michel Houellebecq, the great provocateur of French letters, won the Prix Goncourt in 2010 for this fine novel, at the heart of which is a fictionalised version of the author himself.
When artist Jed Martin emerges from a Parisian garret to exhibit his latest series of paintings, he asks "Michel Houellebecq" to contribute an essay for the catalogue. The collaboration goes smoothly – at least until the famous novelist is gruesomely murdered.
Houellebecq's work has been criticised for its perceived misanthropy, but any hate in this book is directed inward, in what amounts to a compelling exercise in literary masochism. (The Houellebecq character is a snivelling, lank-haired creature, a "tired old decadent".)
His self-parody is so corrosive that it works its way into the texture of his prose: Houellebecq italicises certain phrases – "anthropologically impious"; "a feeling of friendship" – as if to upbraid himself for lapses into pomposity or cliché.
After the author's fictional alter ego meets his sticky end, The Map and the Territory morphs from postmodern satire into a Simenon-style police procedural, and becomes rather less interesting.
But the bittersweet coda, which depicts an elderly Jed, successful yet haunted by "the ghost of a thwarted happiness", is beautifully done. One might have expected Houellebecq to write a wry, clever, ruthlessly self-lacerating novel; the surprise here is that he has written – perhaps in spite of himself – a profoundly affecting one.
Shadowstory, By Jennifer Johnston
Headline Review £7.99
Polly is a young Irish girl growing up during the Second World War. After her father is killed in action she spends much of her time at her grandparent's home, where she becomes close to her father's younger brother, Sam. But when he falls out with the family and leaves Ireland to become a Communist revolutionary in Cuba, Polly's loyalties are torn.
Jennifer Johnston's novella is subtle and elegantly told. The narrative meanders and there is little incident, but the descriptions of Polly's childhood on the Galway coast are so powerful – "the sea, smooth as silk, came and went in huge, looping movements over corrugated sand" – that you have to keep reminding yourself that this is a work of fiction, and not a vividly recalled memoir.
The Shaman in Stilettos, By Anna Hunt
Anna Hunt was a wealthy, glamorous journalist: "London's Carrie Bradshaw". But she felt unfulfilled, so she took off to an expensive retreat in Peru for some me-time. Under the mentorship of the handsome and enigmatic Maximo Morales, she learned the therapeutic craft of the shaman, and resolved to spread the word to stressed-out city-dwellers.
The way Hunt describes her teacher in this revealing memoir – "delectable demigod"; "perfectly honed arse" – you begin to wonder if her real interest lies in shamanism or, well, shagging.
Sure enough, the whole thing culminates in a weird sex sequence in which she and Maximo are described as copulating cats: "I feel this jaguar's hardness against me." I swear I am not making this up.
The Ghost: In Search of My Father the Football Legend, By Rob White and Julie Welch
Yellow Jersey Press £8.99
John White was one of the great British footballers of his time: an elegant midfield playmaker at the heart of the successful Tottenham Hotspur double-winning team of the early 1960s. But in 1964, when he was just 27 years of age, he was struck dead by a bolt of lightning while sheltering under a tree on an Enfield golf course during a thunderstorm, leaving behind his wife and a six-month-old son, Rob.
In this book, written in collaboration with the sports journalist and author Julie Welch, Rob documents his attempts to find out more about the father he never knew. His story is heartfelt and compelling, and includes some superb evocations of football in a bygone era, "the days of wizards of the dribble and mud-clogged boots, of floodlights as brilliant as planets in black skies".
Holidays in Heck, By P J O'Rourke
Grove Press £8.99
In this book, PJ O'Rourke, the US war correspondent turned lefty-baiting humorist, travels to a variety of popular tourist destinations and chronicles his disappointments. "I have little tolerance for fun when other people are having it," he writes, bewildered at the jollity of his fellow travellers in Venice or Hong Kong or – horror of horrors – Disneyland. Those who share his lugubrious take on the world may find much to enjoy in this collection of articles, although I would question the accuracy of O'Rourke's observations, given his comments on the "British manner of cheerfully not complaining". He clearly never asked any London cabbies what they thought of the Olympics.