PAPERBACKS

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The Independent Culture
! Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, Black Swan pounds 6.99. "I exist!" begins this rollercoaster story of one Ruby Lennox, conceived without love on the eve of the Festival of Britain in 1951. Even in embryo Ruby is not best-pleased with what fate appears to have in store: a womanising father, an uncaring, disillusioned mother, a poky flat above a pet shop and before you know it, a very unpleasant birth. Winner of this year's Whitbread first novel award, it is an exuberant and insightful journey into a life that also carries a broader historical perspective, with flashbacks to Ruby's forebears and various other digressions. When, for instance, Ruby's little sister Gillian swallows a button we are referred to Footnote (i) which turns out to be the next chapter, telling of the domestic drudgery and rural poverty suffered by Ruby's great-grandmother Alice from whose dress the button came. A gem.

! Ladies of the Kasbah by Dave Mullins, Warner Books pounds 5.99. This is the story of Dublin's most infamous brothel and the women who worked there. Notoriety came in 1991 after a surveillance operation threatened to implicate leading politicians and churchmen. But what is missing when it comes to naming names is made up for by journalist Mullins's entertaining penny- dreadful style. The Kasbah, he warns us, was "a trough of sexual deviance", the goings-on there "shocking, sizzling and surreal". And indeed he produces a litany of joint-toking priests, business tycoons "goo-gooing" in nappies and farmer-types slipping into slingbacks. But compared with the allegations of child sex abuse plaguing the Catholic church in Ireland this all seems rather harmless, just a few silly men in search of a "despunking", as Cynthia Payne would say.

! Sunrise With Sea Monster by Neil Jordan, Vintage pounds 5.99. Film director Neil Jordan's latest novel begins with a young Republican fighter, Donal, languishing in a Franco jail during the Spanish Civil War, thinking back to what drove him to leave his seaside home of Bray outside Dublin. Slowly the story unfolds of a fumbling and treacherous relationship between Donal, who returns to his birthplace, his politician father and Donal's beautiful piano teacher turned stepmother Rose. This seamlessly written novel deftly spans the personal and the political, and shines in its descriptions of windswept, rain-drenched shorelines and the image of father and son setting "nightlines" to catch fish.

! Eccentrics by David Weeks and Jamie James, Phoenix pounds 6.99. Eccentrics are highly intelligent and creative, very healthy, and happier than the average conformist person, according to this first in-depth study of a phenomenon affecting perhaps one in a thousand people. Weeks, a clinical neuropsychologist in Edinburgh, has been researching eccentrics in Britain and America for a decade and has joined up with journalist James to present both an analysis of his findings and an overview of eccentricity through the ages and by theme - sexual, artistic, etc. The characters range from the 17th-century Francois de Choisy who spent much of his life pretending to be the (female) Comtesse des Barres and actually married a certain Monsieur de Maulny (a woman) but finally packed it all in and became a missionary in Indochina, to Britain's more prosaic Alan Fairweather, a government potato inspector whose diet consists exclusively of potatoes and the occasional bar of chocolate.

! Derailed in Uncle Ho's Victory Garden by Tim Page, Touchstone pounds 7.99. Tim Page was an acclaimed American photographer during the Vietnam war, one of the Saigon press corps' so-called wild bunch. Like so many others caught up in the conflict, his life was changed forever and he has repeatedly returned to the subject and the country. In this, his third book, Page is in modern-day Vietnam and Cambodia to ride "the reunification train" between Hanoi in the north and Saigon in the south. He gives an insightful and compassionate account, with a small selection of photographs, of a region which is terribly scarred but once more looking to the outside world - although it takes a while to get used to a narrator who gets through dope like the Sixties never ended and describes the '68 Tet Offensive as "the biggest rock-and-roll show on earth".

! The Miracle Shed by Philip MacCann, Faber pounds 5.99. A very different vision of Ireland from that of the poetic Neil Jordan (above) animates these stories. MacCann's is a world on the borderline, peopled with inadequates and misfits, peppered with random violence and sexual dysfunction. In "Naturally Strange" a mother and son share a single mattress in a depressing bedsit, the mother pregnant and trying to decide whether to have an abortion, the son trying to find a place and time in which to have sex with his "bird". The tone in many of the stories is authentically lowlife, but others, like "Stories at El Hajeb and S" and the title story, about a group of kids living in a garage and working on a funfair, are less engaging and rather stagily written. Overall, however, this is an interesting first collection.

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