Books: Pick of the week

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"People get things the wrong way round," claims the mischievous narrator of Pauline Melville's last novel, The Ventriloquist's Tale. "Take phobias. Psychologists look in the past for the explanations instead of the future. Phobias are warnings. If you are frightened to go to the top of a high building, it is probably because you are destined to fall off one."

The Guyanese-born writer Melville visits Birmingham on Tuesday, ploughing her stories for topsy-turvy tips for living. The former comic actress will be dipping into The Ventriloquist's Tale, which won last year's Whitbread First Novel Award, as well as her latest short-story collection, The Migration of Ghosts. A beguiling yarn-spinner, she'll have you believing that if you keep a pet too long it'll read your mind and become your enemy; that the dead rise at an eclipse, and that in the confusion animals and people, living and dead, are liable to get mixed up; and that a precocious interest in maths can make your legs disappear.

Don't say she didn't warn you: "We in this part of the world have a special veneration for the lie and all its consequences and ramifications. We treat the lie seriously, as a form of horticulture, to be tended and nurtured, all its little tendrils to be encouraged."

Grand-dame of Welsh poetry Gillian Clarke makes a rare trip to London to read from her new collection, Five Fields. Vibrant social history flows through a fecund but cruel rural landscape, which will find Clarke kneeling in straw reviving frozen newborn lambs with a hair-dryer; or listening to the "treacherous sweetness" of the April cuckoo call.

On Friday, the Apples & Snakes club delivers an evening of top-notch comic cabaret poetry in Laughter Lines. John Hegley obsesses about dogs, glasses and potatoes; Richard Allen speeds through numbers like "I was the Beatles' manager's brother's newspaper-delivery boy"; while Hawaiian performance artist Stacy Makishi reels off spirited monologues in which she is liable to fall in love with a cabbage before giving birth on stage to a Brussels sprout.

Pauline Melville: Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham, 52 Pritchatts Road (0121-414 5128) Tue, 5.30pm, free

Gillian Clarke: Voice Box, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0171-960 4242), Tue, 7.30pm, pounds 4/pounds 2.50

Laughter Lines: Apples & Snakes, BAC, Lavender Hill, London SW11 (0171- 223 2223) Fri, 9pm, pounds 4

Judith Palmer