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The Independent Culture
ALEX GARLAND fans might feel a sense of deja vu during the opening pages of his second novel. Like Richard in The Beach, The Tesseract's central character is a young pill-popping Englishman pent up in a roach- infested hotel room in South East Asia. But instead of a jejune backpacker from Hampstead, Sean turns out to be a hyped-up middleman about to murder a couple of Filipino gangsters.

A more complicated narrative than The Beach, The Tesseract is told from four unrelated points of view. Good news for less hard-boiled readers, as the story includes not only the hitmen, but also love-lorn village girls, a depressed therapist, and two savvy street children in need of a bath and some good parenting.

More car-chase than thriller, the action of the novel is propelled by one moment of paranoia. Waiting for the arrival of Manila's scariest mobster, the malevolent Don Pepe, Sean gets it into his head that his number is up. Instead of welcoming his co-conspirator with a cold beer, he rubs him out in a spray of gunfire and makes a bid for freedom via the city's open sewers.

Sean's nightmarish plight manages to sweep all the novel's leading characters into its path. Most dramatically in the case of Rosa, a mother of two, whose quiet evening in with a tub of ice cream turns nasty when a shit- covered Englishman flies through her window.

Quite what Sean's business is with Don Pepe, or what the other character's histories have to do with Sean's personal crisis is hazy; not that it matters as Garland's Manila, with its soupy harbour and hot skies, is an exotic place to be.

Compared by the critics to Graham Greene, Garland's rather friendly novel - given its subject matter - is more akin to Tarentino. Another sure bet for the summer backpack. EH

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

by Amanda Foreman,

Flamingo, pounds 8.99, 463pp

"LACKING AIRS, tall, arresting, sexually attractive and extremely stylish." It is impossible not to draw parallels between Georgiana (1757- 1806) and another Spencer female who also was rarely out of the papers. Foreman deftly picks her way through a tangle of sexual and political shenanigans in this justly acclaimed portrait of an irresistible, if deeply flawed woman (at 30, her gambling debts amounted to pounds 60,000). Diana would surely have adored one detail: "the prince" was a common euphemism for menstruation in the 18th century.

The Surgeon of Crowthorne

by Simon Winchester

Penguin, pounds 5.99, 207pp

YOU WON'T read a more enthralling work this year than this account of a deranged American surgeon who spent 30 years in Broadmoor after murdering a labourer in 1872. From his cell, William Minor became a leading contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary. Winchester brilliantly weaves together the American Civil War, the history of lexicography and Victorian asylums, but at its heart is the tender relationship between Minor and OED editor James Murray. Everything is wonderful about this book apart from the implausible introduction.