Books: Paperbacks

Midnight In

Sicily

by Peter Robb,

Harvill, pounds 6.99,

323pp

WHERE BUT Sicily could inspire a book so rich in culture, gastronomy and wholesale murder? Resulting from this Aussie writer's 15-year stay in southern Italy, this impressionistic masterpiece is replete with chilling frissons, such as Robb's brush with a top Mafioso in the bloody village of Corleone. But Sicily also produced Lampedusa, incomparable author of The Leopard. Robb writes wonderfully about the island's intensely flavoured cuisine - though he is incorrect to say that a sauce was made from the "cruciform lines of golden eggs" of the sea-urchin. It is the creature's ovaries.

Heading

South, Looking North

by Ariel Dorfman,

Sceptre, pounds 7.99,

282pp

PASSIONATE AND cerebral, this electrifying autobiography is reminiscent of the literature which emerged from the Resistance. Torn between America and Chile in his youth, Dorfman plumped for a career as a writer in Spanish - only to find his own land brutalised by Pinochet. An associate of Allende, he escaped death by a hair's breadth. But only when his wife was (briefly) snatched by Pinochet's agents did Dorfman realise "the irreversible reality of the evil that had visited us". America provided a haven to write this uplifting study of identity, but Chile feeds his creative wellsprings.

The Spirit

Wrestlers

by Philip Marsden,

Flamingo, pounds 6.99,

250pp

A MODERN Marco Polo, Philip Marsden has returned from the fringes of Russia with an enthralling account of the exotic sects who survived persecutions from Peter the Great to the Soviet era. On the steppes, he meets the Doukhobors or spirit-wrestlers, and the Molokans or milk-drinkers ("As newborn babes," said St Peter, "desire the sincere milk of the word"). In the Caucasus, he encounters longevity (the secret is pomegranates, walnuts, and regular sex). In Armenia, he finds the Yezidis, who worship a fallen angel. But Marsden admits that Russia's greatest religion is alcohol.

Elizabeth the Queen

by Alison Weir,

Pimlico, pounds 8.99,

532pp

WHEN BRITAIN'S greatest monarch took the throne, England was rent by religion and massively in debt. When she died, 45 years later, the country was unified and one of the greatest powers in Europe. Steely in her resolve - she was not averse to use of torture - Elizabeth promoted her image as the Virgin Queen wed to the nation, yet secured the loyalty of courtiers by calculated flirting. Weir's riveting narrative is assisted by the language of the era and the Elizabethan love of intrigue. Her final pages are enlivened by Essex's failed coup, prompted by the loss of his sweet wine monopoly.

The Short History of a Prince

by Jane Hamilton,

Black Swan, pounds 6.99,

432pp

JANE HAMILTON'S shrewd, Anne Tylerish portraits of American family life are usually tinged by tragedy. In this, her third novel, we meet Walter McCloud, a self-absorbed teenager whose obsession with dance - he's a not very good ballet dancer - and his developing sexuality make him oblivious to the fact that his older brother is dying from cancer. Toe-curling descriptions of Walter's most painful pubescent moments (his starring role in a small town production of the The Nutcracker, and being caught in flagrante by the parents) offset the book's more mawkish tendencies.

Breakfast on Pluto

by Patrick McCabe, Picador, pounds 6.99,

199pp

VIEWED THROUGH the kohl-rimmed eyes of a transvestite prostitute, life in Seventies Northern Ireland is even bleaker that you might suppose. Related in an explosion of exclamative camp ("Oh bomber!") and ironic back-handers, "Pussy" Braden describes his progress from small-town freak to West End prostitute. While his schoolmates plot to blow up Fortnum and Mason, Pussy plies an even more dangerous trade. As frenetic and funny a read as McCabe's best-known novels, The Butcher's Boy and The Dead School. Shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize.

Red Tails in Love

by Marie Winn,

Bloomsbury, pounds 7.99,

311pp

INSCRUTABLE DOORMEN, celebrities and hokey sentimentality - Wall Street Journal writer Marie Winn's "true life" account of how a rare red- tailed hawk started nesting on the top-floor balcony of a Fifth Avenue apartment block has all the ingredients of the perfect New York story. Watched by a nerdish band of Central Park twitchers, who also trained their binoculars on Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn's love-nest, the hawk went about his business dating a quick succession of females, only to go back to "First Love": a mature female with a big fluffy chest. The avian version of Sex in the City.

In Praise of Lies

by Patricia Melo, Bloomsbury, pounds 10.99,

187pp

JOSE GUBER writes potboilers for a living, pinching his stories from the works of Dostoyevsky, Chesterton and Poe. But when he meets and falls in love with Melissa, an expert on snake venom and serums, he finds himself living a lurid plot-line of his own invention. An enjoyable tongue- in-cheek thriller, Patricia Melo's story of how to commit the perfect murder is as refreshing for its exotic setting (the yuppier pizza joints of downtown Sao Paulo), as for its professionally depressed hero, the lugubrious Jose Guber. Some pointed swipes at the world of mass-market publishing en route.

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