Paperbacks

Accountable to None by Simon Jenkins (Penguin, pounds 7.99) In this cool, impartial analysis, Jenkins probes the real impact of Thatcherite government, which continues little changed under Major. Not only has the public sector ''take'' from GDP remained stable at 40 per cent since 1970, but government has also tightened its grasp on our public bodies, consistently to their detriment. Jenkins' catalogue of ineptitude and high-handednes in successive areas - education, police, NHS, poll tax, city government - will leave readers seething with indignation. The solution, he says, is a written constitution. Without it, any nation ''will lapse into cynicism ... the first step to anarchy.''

The Pillars of Hercules by Paul Theroux (Penguin, pounds 6.99) While no-one would accuse Theroux of excessive geniality, our acerbic hero's circuit of the Med (anti-clockwise from Gib to Tangier) generates less bile than his previous meandering in the South Pacific. Despite his grouchy reputation, Theroux talks to everyone and his vision remains astonishingly fresh. Just occasionally, you wonder where keen observation stops and padding begins but in general, it's superb entertainment. The low point comes not in shell-holed Dubrovnik but in Albania, a place so ''filthy and deranged'' that Theroux escapes as a stowaway.

The Day the War Ended by Martin Gilbert (HarperCollins, pounds 8.99) Hundreds of first-hand accounts of VE Day are expertly woven into a gripping narrative by our greatest historian of 20th century conflict. The tone is darker than might be expected, with the opening of concentration camp gates revealing the ''wild nightmare'' within. But there is also much joy: a POW thrills to hear Crosby singing ''Blue Skies''; an American girl in Paris informs a soldier ''Nope, not even on VE Day...'' And on a Phillipines island, Onoda Hiroo, left behind after the Japanese retreat continues his one- man campaign until ordered to surrender in 1974.

Homebush Boy by Thomas Keneally (Sceptre, pounds 5.99) 1952 was the ''most succulent and the most dangerous'' year of Thomas Keneally's life. This was the year he turned 17 and decided to cast himself in the role of Romantic poet and aesthete extraordinaire. School tie loosened into a cravat, an OUP edition of Gerard Manley Hopkins poetry bulging from his blazer pocket, he wandered the streets of Homebush (a non-descript suburb 15 miles west of Sydney) trying to look like a cross between Thomas Chatterton and Beethoven. What Australian boys were like before Neighbours.

Career Girls by Louise Bagshawe (Orion, pounds 5.99) Rowena Gordon is blonde, cool, virginal and wants to get into the music business. Topaz Rossi, a red-headed Italian-American with attitude, has her eyes on the editor's chair at Vanity Fair. They meet (and fall out) at Oxford over coffee and chocolate hobnobs, and graduate from being screwed by posh English boys on the banks of the Cherwell, to being screwed by brash New Yorkers in 5th Avenue apartments. A blockbuster of the classiest kind - give it to your 14-year-old niece and she'll love you forever (though it may trigger a life-long aversion to post-coital bagels and cream cheese).

At Eighty Two by May Sarton (Women's Press, pounds 8.99) In this, the last of her journals, poet and novelist May Sarton records her on-going battle with the creative act, and the growing impositions of ''real old age''. As ever, her diary entries are a seductive combination of domestic detail (anticipating a slice of lemon cake after a morning's work, or watching a Whoopi Goldberg video), and poetic reflections on the New England weather. Unsurprisingly, as she grows older, Sarton dwells increasingly on childhood memories - at one point noting that ''even at eighty-one, when you are ill, you want your mother''.

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 sotires 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.'' They're all either on drugs or should be.

The Tortilla Curtain by T. 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, and absorbing - a Grapes of Wrath for the Nineties.

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