Diary of a Bad YearBy JM Coetzee Vintage, £7.99 JM Coetzee and Francis Bacon, although born 400 years apart, are cut from similar cloth. Both write essays, are didactic, thoughtful, serious, pragmatic, of a philosophical hue and interested in the paradox of authority in fiction. Remember, Bacon's famous Of Studies, on the value of learning?
In this novel, Coetzee parallels his faux-romantic, parable-plot with essay titles prefixed with "on" - On Anarchism, On Terrorism, On the Erotic Life, On Apology, and many more. But his suppressed anger is reserved for the "so-called war on terror". He sees Osama bin Laden as a gift to the right-wing governments of the US and Australia.
The work is cited as comprising two diaries - Strong Opinions and Second Diary - but it arrives on the page for the reader with lines between the three sections: the opinion piece, the story in the voice of the narrator and, after some pages, Anya - the object of the narrator's desire with an "angelic derrière" - who tells her side as an amanuensis for a writer in the early stages of Parkinson's. This is a novel for our times in its content and in the exacting way it may be read - the essays first or in parallel? It ranges in tone from news-stand fiction to Joyce's artistic distance of a writer sitting on a cloud. It's full of surprises but not for the slothful.
Beechcombings: The Narratives of Trees
by Richard Mabey, Vintage, £8.99
This is the story of the beech forests of southern England. Mabey knows them intimately, down to individual, named trees. It's a scientific, historical, poetic account written in a quietly humorous, thoughtful style. The essential theme of the book is whether man can or should manage the forests or whether the trees know best. Mabey treats the issue with the subtlety and seriousness of a philosopher. He is also a sensitive interpreter of painting and literature. His references to George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows are inspired, and he gives us an eye-opening account of the tree paintings of Paul Nash, "the 20th century's most transcendental painter of trees". Mabey concludes this remarkable book in grand style: "Wild, unmanaged, trees show us possibilities beyond our cultural tunnel-vision. They are ravishing in their autonomous lives and mercurial beauty." Ireland has some (non-native) beeches waiting to be hugged after you've read this book.
Femme Fatale: Love, Lies and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari
by Pat Shipman, Phoenix, £8.99
The focus of this rigorous biography is Mata Hari, the dancer who took advantage of the Belle Époque's blooming interest in orientalism to make her name and fortune before being found guilty of espionage and executed by the French. Her performances of supposedly "sacred" dances of the East Indies were celebrated equally for their eroticism and originality, and Mata Hari's grace and beauty appear to have been universally lauded. She was famous throughout early 20th-century Europe for both her artistry and an extensive string of lovers, made up mostly of officers of various nationalities. Shipman here maintains that Mata Hari was used as a convenient scapegoat by prudish French counter-espionage officials who prosecuted her without any substantial evidence; a thesis she defends convincingly. The author details a life that is dramatic and moving, and the extracts of the letters the subject sent to her tireless interrogator from her filthy jail cell are especially poignant.
The Master Bedroom
by Tessa Hadley, Vintage, £7.99
What is the ultimate sacrifice for a pretty, successful, and society-savvy London university professor? In Hadley's novel, the answer is to move to Cardiff and care for your ageing mother. Kate Flynn gives up her career and her flat to move back to "Firenze", a massive, almost mythical estate with innumerable rooms. Unsurprisingly, Kate soon finds herself bored with grocery shopping and taking her mother to the one cafe in town. As she reconnects with old friends, she starts obsessing over an acquaintance from her past, her best friend Carol's younger brother, David. Though David is now married and has children, she wishes for their friendship to become something more. But as the new face in the town's social circle - erudite, funny, and better-dressed than everyone else - Kate gains a lot of attention from other admirers, namely David's 17-year-old son. Though Kate's melodrama risks becoming tiresome, there are just enough plot twists and love triangles to keep the reader going.
by Anthony Holden, Abacus, £9.99
Back in the 1980s, writer Anthony Holden spent 12 months trying to earn his living as a poker player, competing in the 1988 and 1989 World Series tournaments in Vegas for $700,000 prize money. His account of that, Big Deal, helped to popularise the game, which, thanks to the internet, is now a phenomenon. Bigger Deal sees him return to witness the monster that he helped create. By 2006, the World Series had a prize fund of $150 million. Holden documents the game's boom, which he dubs the "new poker". Happily, it turns out that many of its old characters have reinvented themselves and are now making their big scores by riding the new wave for all it's worth. It also details Holden's fortunes at the tables. Experienced players will empathise with his ups and downs, while his bad decisions will encourage rookies. All in all, Bigger Deal is good enough to leave you hoping that he sticks to the day job.