PAPERBACKS

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! How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman, Minerva £6.99. Kelman took a lot of media stick when this novel won the 1994 Booker. (Boring and foul-mouthed, they said.) True, the plot's no mini-series and the language would keep it off Woman's Hour, but Kelman is a real artist, attending to the painful minutiae of passing time in the way Beckett did. Sammy, a drunk, is beaten up on the streets of Glasgow, struck blind, and stumbles around the benefit circuits with increasing bafflement and diminishing returns. Blindness is both the book's subject and its master metaphor: in this seeing world, Sammy's problem is not really his blindness but his invisibility.

! Michael Foot by Mervyn Jones, Gollancz £9.99. This fond biography - a substitute (Jones seems to claim) for the autobiography Foot won't write - is largely a history of the Labour Party since the war. Foot was always there or thereabouts, Bevan's corner man in the '50s, marching with CND in the '60s, dipping his toe into government in the '70s, a limping party leader in the '80s. His decades tend to start well and end in tears. Even the early '70s, with Labour out of office, were quite good for Foot, who is by nature an opposer, a reluctant leader whose idols - Swift, Byron, Hazlitt, Bevan, Russell - do not suggest a love of trimming.

! Still Life with Volkswagens by Geoff Nicholson, Sceptre £5.99. When perfectly ordinary Volks-wagens start to explode all over the place - Kilburn, Bath, even Lytham St Annes - you hope there's something millennarian going on, and this very funny book doesn't let you down. The Beetle, Hitler's back-to-front brainchild, is perfect for dweebs: it's been whitewalled, soft-topped, souped-up, tweaked, mean-machined, dye-cast, goldplated, run on chicken-shit, baptised, fitted with curtains... End-of-millennium Britain is seething with obsessions; Nicholson picks one up and runs with it all the way.

! The Virtual Community by Howard Rheingold, Minerva £6.99. Remember Citizen's Band Radio, an indispensable revolutionary gizmo without which democracy simply would not be safe? In the event the whole kerfuffle was nothing but a truckdriver's benefit. Now, like Howard Rheingold, people bang on about cyberspace and how "virtual communities are likely to change our experiences of the real world". But are they offering anything other than a computer geek's Festschrift? The jargon is irritating; but the sheer versatility of the medium ensures its future.

! Burning Bright by Helen Dunmore, Penguin £5.99. The psychologically intricate story of Nadine, a teenage runaway drawn into the orbit of pimps. Set up in a house and groomed to serve the prize client, a cabinet minister with eccentric sexual desires, she meets Enid, an elderly tenant whose friendship threatens the plan. Notable in this fine novel is the sympathy with which all the characters are drawn: the effect is unusual: a kind of thriller with no out-and-out villains.

! The Maid's Tale by Kathleen Ferguson, Poolbeg £5.99. The pampered, creepy world of the Catholic clergy, wafting whiskey and stale incense, is evoked with wonderful candour in this first novel, which was shortlisted for the Whit-bread Award. From the Presbytery kitchen, Brigid the priest's maid watches parochial goings-on over 33 years, acute enough to understand that her servitude is a celibate parody of marriage - the domestic helplessness of the man, the woman's relegation, her emotionally arid "privilege", the quasi-sexual envy of other women. The tone is regretful but never hopeless, and the lovely Derry idiom has a power all its own .

! The Oxford Book of Schooldays, ed Patricia Craig, OUP £7.99. The adult appeal of school stories is mainly nostalgic, as reflected in this amusing 400-page collection. Considering that every single autobiography has a schooldays chapter, the editorial sweat is in the exclusions. Too much has been left out on comprehensives and so-called "progressive" education. And though we have Mary Wollstonecraft arguing for co-education, there is strangely little imaginative writing from that sexual chemistry lab.

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