Romps and romances: Spooky joys with Brenda, bride of Frankenstein

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The Independent Culture

Sexing up romance is the job of every good popular novelist, and this year's more memorable offerings have taken on a decidedly gothic bent. With earth-bound thrills in short supply, expect your stocking to come filled with tales of supernatural smooching and phantasmagorical flings. Set in a wintery Paris, Julie Myerson's erotic ghost story The Story of You (Vintage, 7.99) describes a dreamy affair between a bereaved mother and an enigmatic lover. As her grief starts to recede, so too does her man. Liaisons of an existential kind also lie at the heart of Douglas Kennedy's noirish thriller, The Woman in the Fifth (Hutchinson 12.99). On the run from the authorities and a failed marriage, Paris-based academic Harry Ricks hooks up with a mysterious older woman. Their trysts couldn't be more terrestrial, but Harry soon starts to wonder if his mistress has a pulse.

Witches, rather than ghouls, take centre-stage in The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris (Doubleday 17.99). The long-awaited sequel to Chocolat, the novel catches up with the French sorceress, Vianne Rocher, now the proprietress of a smart chocolaterie in Montmartre. It's heavy on hocus-pocus and black magic: expect broomsticks over St Sulpice.

There's more Francophilia to be found in Kate Mosse's Sepulchre (Orion 18.99). Like her bestselling Grail-gripper, Labyrinth, this historical fantasy plunders the myths and legends of south-west France for a page-turning saga of fin-de-sicle spiritualism and Visigothic treasure. Meanwhile, back in Whitby, Paul Magrs' comic novel Something Borrowed (Review, 19.99) out-camps Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley with a touching story of forbidden love. Reinvented as a seaside landlady, the long-lived bride of Frankenstein now known as Brenda hides her assets under a series of flouncy skirts and high-necked blouses.

It is something of a relief to return to the real world and a story of good old-fashioned adultery. Olivia Lichtenstein's comic debut, Mrs Zhivago of Queen's Park (Orion, 6.99), follows the indiscretions of Chloë, a North London Jewish mother who hasn't slept with her husband for 245 days. Just as she despairs of ever having sex again she bumps into Ivan, a tall, dark, moody Russian who somewhat unpromisingly introduces himself as "Vank'a". His parting gift: a chronic case of cystitis and guilt.

And if your own family dynamics look set to over-heat during the holiday season, Simonetta Agnello Hornby's Sicilian epic The Marchesa (trans. Alastair McEwen; Penguin, 7.99) offers some hot-blooded escapism. A Lampedusan period-piece drawn from the author's own aristocratic past, the novel captures life in a Palermo palazzo where incest, infidelity and domestic violence are everyday events.

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