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The Independent Culture
The Destiny of Nathalie X by William Boyd, Penguin pounds 5.99. Boyd works his customary narrative juju in these attractive stories set in attractive places: Portugal, the South of France, Los Angeles and Hounslow. The title piece is a satire reminiscent of Altman's The Player, where Boyd's Tinseltown virgin is an experimental African film-maker. You expect the screeching flock of Hollywood critics, agents, writers and execs who descend on the promising incomer (each equipped with "a theory about this town, this place") to rip the tyro's creative spirit to shreds. But Boyd has a way of making you trip over your expectations. Other stories climb agreeably inside the skin of a young Cyril Connolly (if I've read it right) on a have-it-away day, a young Ludwig Wittgenstein on a give-it-away day (his inheritance, that is) and a minicab controller dreaming he's a Brazilian sybarite.

The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Zhisui Li, Arrow pounds 9.99. Whilst assiduously abolishing the privacy of his citizens, Mao enjoyed the busiest and most private life in China. In a splendid memoir which bears direct comparison with Lord Moran on Churchill, Mao's personal doctor here spills the rice on his old employer's habits, hobbies, moods, diet, pharmacology, diseases and sex-life. Comparisons with other leaders are irresistible. Mao's diary was organised around his insatiable sexual appetite (like JFK); all his specially grown food was pre-tasted (like Stalin); he had a custom-built bed (like de Gaulle); he worked at night and slept by day (like Churchill); he seemed peculiarly "devoid of human feeling, incapable of love, friendship or warmth" (like Franco); he had an undescended testicle (like Hitler?).

So I Am Glad by A L Kennedy, Vintage pounds 5.99. Kennedy is a Scots writer with a previous novel and two story collections to her name. This second novel earned a Scottish Book of the Year Award and confirms her quality. Jennifer, a voice-over artist (she also voices the story), is house-sharing with other young and chronically miserable singles when an uninvited, fortyish house-guest, Martin, turns up with amnesia and an oddly archaic way of speaking. He promptly upsets all Jennifer's carefully maintained defences, moving her to face up to her own sexual hang-ups and embark on a quasi-metaphysical voyage around Martin himself and his seemingly absurd fantasies. The conundrum is that the lodger, given who he is (or thinks he is), makes a less fascinating character than he should while Jennifer, conversely, is much more interesting than she thinks she is.

Accountable to None: the Tory Nationalisation of Britain by Simon Jenkins, Penguin pounds 7.99. In 1896, as now, 12,000 citizens were involved in supervising London. The difference? Then, all were elected; now, fewer than 2,000 are. Jenkins is a turning worm, a self-confessed member of the Thatcher/Major Quangocracy, but now cheesed off with the myriad important (or self-important) Boards and Commissions he sits or has sat on. After analysing Thatcher as a dictator by instinct but a radical only in rhetoric, he proceeds to look at the practical effects of 17 years of "new" Tory rule on the public weal. Most notable is the centralisation of power (what Jenkins deplores as "nationalisation"), whose most egregious aspect is the proliferation of unelected, can-carrying "agencies". Their purpose may have been to bring an auditing culture to officials but, if you happen to be a minister, they give the lucky bonus of protecting you from the very responsibility you were elected to bear.

Tom Paine: A Political Life by John Keane, Bloomsbury pounds 8.99. To anyone (like me) who began to think about politics in the late 1960s, Tom Paine feels like a contemporary. A witty and instinctive - if conceited - radical, Paine loved to shock. He believed that every generation must claim its own future and not be restrained by dead traditions, and he was also everyone's idea of an activist: a demonstrator, pamphleteer and compulsive traveller. As patron saint of the Sixties counterculture, he was overshadowed by his equally unorthodox contemporary William Blake. But Blake is of much less practical use than the Paine who emerges from this action-packed and vividly atmospheric biography.

The Wrong Girl by Nick McDowell, Sceptre pounds 5.99. Some first novelists strain to make you like their characters, but the reverse is true of this one, who seems to be staking out his territory as an English Irvine Welsh. McDowell's people - the moronic minicab-driving rapist, the quack doctor running an Aegean health farm as a vehicle for his voyeurism, the bulimic fantasist who hires a contract killer to stiff her own child-abusing father - are all in their ways mad and bad, the more so for taking themselves very seriously. McDowell displays considerable skill in manipulating three diverse and vivid narrative voices.

Between Hopes and Memories: A Spanish Journey by Michael Jacobs, Picador pounds 8.99. Most tourists to Spain don't care what goes on behind the Costa. Jacobs does, but his enthusiasm has a light touch about it. Starting out from the Escorial, he takes us on a leisurely journey through the "real" Spain, not particularly seeking the soul of the place, but allowing curiosity to lead where it will. In Madrid, there's Europe's oldest tobacco factory and, in Toledo, the setting for a scene in Bunuel's Tristana. We pay a not wholly reverent visit to Goya's Zaragoza birthplace and, in the Basque country, squirrel for traces of Victor Hugo. Down in Granada, we observe the return of Islam and in Andalusia, visit the former British enclave of Rio Tinto, where the zinc came from and where a corner of a foreign field is still forever East Molesley. And much, much more.

The Greeks pioneered the study of weather, but by the Middle Ages supernatural rather than scientific explanations were found for meteorological phenomena. The superstition that the bright moon blighted young shoots went unchallenged until the 19th century, when Francois Arago established the link between frost and lack of cloud-cover (hence a bright moon). How Weather Works (Thames and Hudson pounds 6.95) charts man's fascination with, and dependence upon, weather prediction. Above: a 15th-century Italian representation of the Sun, with strange pagan undertones

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