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The Independent Culture
SELF-DISGUST was the theme of Sean Hughes's first novel The Detainees. Self-abuse is the calling card of his second: a black comedy set in Crouch End, whose hero, Shea Hickson, is an unemployed paranoiac with a head full of dirty thoughts.

Life is a long series of mornings-afters for Shea, until one Christmas he returns home to find his dad - a weather-man - hanging from a light- fitting in his study. Determined to discover the cause of his father's suicide, Shea pockets his dad's diaries, and a secret cache of pornographic negatives, and embarks on a journey down the corridors of meteorological TV.

He uncovers not the family man he thought he knew, but an adulterer, an anarchist, even - in the novel's unnecessarily shocking denouement - a rapist.

Not that the book's plot is taken too seriously by its author. At critical moments Shea either faints, boards a plane or loses yet another family member. In his search for answers he ends up in Melbourne, Australia, where he discovers a long lost brother, and nirvana in the mouth of a pretty prostitute.

Not in the same league as his first novel which had something to say about growing up poor and depressed, Hughes's latest work is too manipulative to be truly moving. EH

My Year Off

by Robert McCrum

Picador, pounds 7, 239pp

"ROBERT ISN'T feeling very well," is how his mother told McCrum's new American wife of his stroke at the age of 41. Just as Dr Johnson did after his stroke, the novelist recited poetry to test his mental faculties. "The same as being hanged," said a specialist. McCrum's story of his recuperation ("I became friends with slowness") is superbly observed. Along with the dark recognition that "we are all in the doctor's waiting room," McCrum concludes "the only thing that really matters is love."

Charles: a biography

by Anthony Holden

Corgi, pounds 7.99, 495pp

THOUGH HIS friendship with HRH went pfft!, Holden remains obsessed. In his third biography of the Prince, he calls Charles "unenviable" and "poignant", but sharp digs abound. Holden remarks that Andrew Parker Bowles was the first non-vet to command the Royal Army Veterinary Corps in 200 years. He quotes an unnamed royal "friend" on Camilla: "You're never sure they're today's knickers she's got on". It's a safe bet that Holden won't be back on speakers with his princely ex-pal.