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The Independent Culture
2 The Love Letter by Cathleen Schine, Sceptre pounds 5.99.

Sleepless in Seattle joins hands with 84 Charing Cross Road in this seductive, crystal-delicate comedy of manners, set in a fading seaside town on America's East Coast. Bookshop owner Helen MacFarquhar, 42, is in control. She has divorced her philandering husband Dan, enjoys an adult relationship with her daughter Emily and rules her store with an amicable rod of iron, flirting with customers and sending those who come in seeking the latest John Grisham novel away with an armful of Julian Barnes.

Everything starts to unravel, however, when she is the unwilling recipient of an anonymous love letter: "How do you fall in love?" it asks. "Do you trip? Do you stumble ... and drop to the sidewalk, graze your knee, graze your heart?" Uncertain who it is from, or indeed whether it was intended for her in the first place, Helen becomes obsessed with the letter, allowing it to prize open her tautly-ordered existence and unleash a Pandora's Box of unfettered desires. Screwball comedy intercuts with wistful ruminations on the nature of seduction and fantasy to produce a gentle, intoxicating take on the whole liberated-woman-falling-in-love genre.

Paul Sussman

2 Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks, Secker pounds 10.

It would be hard work to think of a tag that the publisher hadn't already applied to this book. On a sticker on the front jacket we get "white trash", "black humour", "hot sex" and "cold-blooded murder", and if that doesn't cover all the bases a potential reader can turn over and find James Ellroy describing it as "an instant red-neck idiot savant classic" or "Hard Copy meets James M Cain meets white trash [again!] with a vengeance". Is someone a bit insecure?

Once we get inside, there is not much the prose can do to live up to all this hype, but the author (a university teacher of creative writing) just keeps pushing up the head-count, both in sex and murder scenes. Workaday descriptions and the barest of plots circle around Sherri Parlay, a 30- plus Miami bar-girl who decides to spruce up her life by taking a regular job in a dry-cleaners. One glance at the Mick-Jagger lips of the boss's son, however, and she's up to her old tricks; what's more, respectability doesn't turn out to be quite what she expected. Sherri must be the only one capable of being surprised by the ending, but as light reading goes, it could be worse.

Catherine Storey