The latest paperbacks to hit the shelves.jpg

The latest paperbacks to hit the shelves

MARION KAPLAN’S first edition of The Portuguese: The Land and its People was acclaimed by Portuguese readers, visitors to the country and those eager to discover the rich history and dynamic present of a superficially familiar, but still little known nation of Europe. When it went out of print a few years ago, it left a gap that has, at last, been filled by this revised edition. With a fully updated travel advisory section, this lively portrait of Portugal is once more available.

Portugal is exhilaratingly on the move, and this guide celebrates the country’s colourful history and its continuing popularity as a travel destination. An overview starts with the earliest times of the Romans and Moors, and continues through the turbulent history of the great kings and queens, to the era of maritime exploration and empire building. It finally reaches the revolutionary struggles that culminated in the bloodless revolution of 1974 and the modern, postcolonial state.

Portuguese life today, from soccer to politics, is also covered. For travellers, there is an invaluable section of practical information, including detailed maps and a comprehensive bibliography.

Marion Kaplan was born in London and lived for several years in an old stone house in the Algarve. Her empathy for Portugal combines with her journalistic skills to create a fascinating close-up of a great nation transforming itself into a modern European state. Her insights into the intricacies of family life and customs, the institutions of church and state, the social mix of rural communities and vibrant cities, make this an unrivalled introduction to Portugal and its people. Everyone should have a copy – it is excellent! In paperback at 20 euros.

Also new out in paperback are the latest novels from two well-known American authors.

Bret Easton Ellis, in Lunar Park, has written an intriguing combination of fiction and reality, where his novel starts by offering the opening lines to his past books, contrasting them with his proposed first sentence for this novel. He then offers a quick recap of everything that has happened to him from the moment he started writing his earlier book, Less Than Zero. However, almost nothing he writes can be taken seriously, no matter how hard he tries to convince us he is telling the truth.

Lunar Park is filled with sly jokes and references that reveal the careful construction of this supposedly true tale. In the past, Ellis has seemed proud of his avoidance of a plot, or rather his clever questioning of what is required from a novel. He has, indeed, created a style entirely his own.

The author Ellis seems to be emulating most closely (and one of the few writers he confesses to be inspired by) is Stephen King. Like King, he is interested in fathers and authors, fictional creations becoming real, and the fear that, although the derangement of the mind is necessary for good writing, it can ultimately lead to murder and madness.

Lunar Park is a literary horror story and an enormously entertaining novel. Far less hardcore than anything he has written so far, it’s the novel that all his detractors should read. In paperback at 10.50 euros.

The world according to John Irving is one steeped in quirkiness, peopled by screw-ups and shaped by not-so-simple twists of fate. It is precisely that mélange of kooky characters and wacky detail that makes his novels such a joy. And it’s a recipe that has won him a huge, and very profitable, following over three decades.

Jack Burns, the hero of Mr. Irving’s new novel, Until I Find You, is a victim in spades – and then some. As a boy, Jack is sexually molested by an older girl at school. He is molested by his mother’s female lover. And he is molested by an older woman at the local gym. He loses his innocence early on and, over the years, he also loses many of the people closest to him: he grows up without a father, is sent away to school by his unstable mother, and sees many of his loved ones succumb to bizarre or untimely deaths. He also learns, as he enters middle age, that much of what he believed to be true about his life was in fact a lie.

There’s no disguising that the roots of the story have grown out of Irving’s own life. Although he reworked the entire manuscript, changing the narrative from first to third person, such autobiographical themes still come at the expense of plot momentum. It’s only later, much, much later, that we discover that all might not be what it seems: what passes for recollection may actually be subterfuge.

This 800-page tome is overlong, and could have done with a firm editorial hand. Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy – the only way to decide how good it really is, is to read it for yourself and see what you think. In paperback at 12.65 euros.