Book Reviews
Rain Men by Marcus Berkmann (Abacus, pounds 6.99) A wonderfully droll, debunking account of the summer game by an inept devotee (batting average: "a whisker under 4.2"). The book ranges from trenchant comment on our national side - the notoriously slow-scoring Tavare is "a kindred spirit of Ingmar Bergman" - to the misfortunes of the author's own team, the Captain Scott Invitation XI (motto: ''Semper Tristes", "always sad"). En route, he demolishes the bucolic myth of village cricket ("total bollocks") and puts the boot into commentators ("painfully prosaic"). Bile as sustained as a Lara innings.

Prince Rupert: Portrait of a Soldier by Frank Kitson(Constable, pounds 10.95) One Commander-in-Chief of Land Forces (1982-85) gives an absorbing assessment of another (1664-65). In addition to being the paradigm of a dashing Cavalier - 6ft 4in, a sure-shot and ridiculously brave - Rupert was a superb strategist. An ardent Protestant who came to fight the puritans, he secured two years' ascendancy for the Royalist army, which might otherwise have crumbled in months. Kitson's strategic analysis is fascinating - but there is much more to this first-rate biography, packed with action and drama, A sequel on Rupert's subsequent naval career is promised.

The Paperboy by Pete Dexter (Penguin, pounds 6.99) Somewhat against his will, a condemned man from a white-trash clan, which festers in the swamps of northern Florida, is saved from the electric chair by an ill- assorted pair of hot-shot Miami reporters: flashy stylist Yardley Acheman and dogged newshound Ward James. Not a word is misplaced as Dexter pursues his brilliantly realised characters along dark, determined paths, where lust hovers like humidity and violence swirls up like a tropical storm. Though it's a sour pleasure, you won't put this book down until reaching its barbed conclusion: "There are no intact men."

Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly (Warner, pounds 7.99) In this authoritative account of the real-life models for L J Silver and Captain Hook, Cordingly reveals that while loss of limbs was not uncommon, the average pirate was a fit and active 27-year-old, and that although Drake's capture of the galleon Cacafuego (''Shitfire'') in 1579 netted around pounds l million in today's money, the great era of piracy was between 1650 and 1725. The reality of the life of a buccaneer captain was that it was nasty, brutish and short - around two years before being retired by the noose. But Cordingly notes that the piratical myth answers a deep-felt longing in suburban swabs.

Time Travel by Jon Savage (Chatto, pounds 12.99) Acclaimed as a historian of punk, Savage has succumbed to the temptation of issuing his collected clippings. This book starts badly (juvenilia about the Sex Pistols) and gets worse, reaching a nadir with 13 pages devoted to a 1979 article on Gary Numan. Savage's pop pontifications, which he is still disgorging at the age of 42, might pass muster in magazines - but here they appear shrill, humourless and self-important. In a rambling introduction, he boasts that he now no longer has "to write stuff that makes me sick when I read it". Judging by what he has chosen to preserve, this may be the literal truth.

The Tortilla Curtain by . Coraghessan Boyle (Bloomsbury, pounds 5.99) Forget that tricky middle name, just call him "T C" Boyle, and get on with the fun business of reading one of America's most adventurous novelists. Boyle delivers his best work in this social survey of both sides of contemporary southern California's economic divide - yuppies in gated communities, and disenfranchised illegal aliens sleeping rough in the canyons. The book's protagonist, Delaney Mossbacher, is the perfect liberal environmentalist - he loves nature, just so long as it doesn't move in next door. Funny, fast, sharp - a Grapes of Wrath for the Nineties.

Cold Snap by Thom Jones (Faber, pounds 8.99) Hot on the heels of his highly acclaimed first collection, The Pugilist at Rest, Thom Jones delivers another batch of short stories about manic, violent characters in a world of extremes. Jones's "misfit individualists" include aid-workers in Africa, cosmetic-surgeons in La-la Land, a card-playing baboon named George Babbitt, and an advertising genius with a bad case of the "Congo trots". Either they're on drugs, or they might as well be. As Johnny Pushe, a second- rate boxer in ''Dynamite Hands'', declares: ''I don't know - having a bear chase you, you survive it, it's good information.'' If nothing else, Jones opens your eyes.

Going Naked is the Best Disguise by Steven Jacobi (Minerva, pounds 5.99) When his father loses money in the jewellery business, Steven Jacobi's young narrator offers to make perfume from the roses in his back garden, and wonders if Blue Peter might hold an appeal. In the end it's only Aunty Betty who invests in his browning petals. His next crisis involves the discovery that he is ''a man's head in a pair of girls' slacks''. A funny, bright and very readable first novel that recalls schooldays in Birmingham, a family's complicated Germanic past, and a mother who likes to hoover in the nude. Despite the levity, be prepared for some My Life as a Dog bedside tears.

School for Lovers by Jill Paton Walsh (Black Swan, pounds 6.99) Mannered Oxford quads and tangled English country gardens provide the backdrop for a novel of literary conceits and musical allusions. Two friends, dared by their pervy tutor to seduce one another's lovers, quickly get lost in seas of cow parsley and thickets of young romance. A donnish read (scattered with significant references to Ovid, Mozart, Shakespeare) that will appeal to Irish Murdoch and A S Byatt fans, though may be a little contrived for some tastes. First published in 1989, this should get more attention this time around - being a Booker-shortlisted author has its advantages.

Woman's Hour 50th Anniversary Short Story Collection (Penguin, pounds 6.99) A cosy pick n' mix selection put together to celebrate 50 years of Woman's Hour includes mainstreamers like Helen Simpson, Fay Weldon and Maeve Binchy, although an attempt at diversity has been made: Margaret Atwood (''The Hurricane Hazel'') and Amy Bloom (''Love is not a Pie'') head up the transatlantic crowd; Sylvia Townsend Warner (''Healthy Landscapes with Dormouse'') and Elizabeth Taylor (''Flesh'') the golden oldies; and Jeanette Winterson (''O'Brien's First Christmas'') the right-on alternatives. On the whole, its the oldies that could have done with a bit more space.