PAPERBACKS

Love and Houses by Marti Leimbach (Pan, pounds 5.99).

In Leimbach's latest novel, the New York real estate market gets dirty. When her husband walks out on her (and her soon-to-be-born baby), the first thing Meg Mackenzie wants to do is put their house on the market, Having failed to grasp the basic economic principle of marriage - marry in a bad market, divorce in a good one - she's determined to wise up to the realities of property ownership. That is, until a blue-eyed Western writer moves into the apartment downstairs. A breezy, wise-cracking discourse on the perils of the married state.

Down by the River by Edna O'Brien (Phoenix, pounds 5.99). The after-smell of a long-dead donkey; the pink of a rain-washed foxglove bell: O'Brien's bucolic rhapsodising is up there with DH Lawrence and Laurie Lee. But whether this kind of lyricism turns you on or not, it's all just background scenery for a decidedly unromantic tale about a young girl's abuse at the hands of her father, and her eventual pregnancy and abortion in a London clinic. O'Brien's country girls step rather uncomfortably into the Nineties (and even listen to Wet Wet Wet).

Short Orders: film writing by Jonathan Romney (Serpent's Tail, pounds 11) In the louche ranks of film reviewers you find either ditsy Hollywood cheerleaders, or art-house buffs forever pained by the weekly diet of studio dross. Jonathan Romney is that rare creature - a critic who covers the waterfront. He can tell us exactly why we should taste the stranger fruits of world cinema (The Scent of Green Papaya, Man Bites Dog, Kika) but can also manage a sparky, original take on blockbusters such as The Lion King, Jurassic Park and Batman Forever. These collected pieces from the Nineties, mostly written for the New Statesman, should guide every discerning couch potato's trips down to the local video store. They also make you wonder why Another Newspaper has scandalously under-used his talents lately.

The Dream Mistress by Jenny Diski (Phoenix, pounds 5.99) Jenny Diski's novels never fail to surprise or shock. It's not that her writing is manipulative or contrived, just that her view of the world is genuinely, and intriguingly, weird. In her latest novel, a Jewish dressmaker walks out on her husband in a cinema in Camden Town, and takes the back exit out through an empty car lot. She stumbles over the body of a tramp, who, it turns out, could be her long-lost mother ... or maybe not. Steering a steady course between the contemplative and the raunchy, Diski examines love and loneliness in a north London setting.

Tennyson's Gift by Lynne Truss (Penguin, pounds 6.99)

Set on the Isle of Wight during the broiling July of 1864, this lyrical comedy concerns a Travesties-style confluence of Victorian celebs: the eponymous poet ("surely the dirtiest laureate who ever lived"), the cranky photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, the sponging, dreamy painter GF Watts and his 16-year-old actress wife Ellen Terry; and the creepy CJ Dodgson on the brink of Alice fame. With impressive inventiveness, Truss exploits the gulf between the era's high ideals and its all-too-human reality.

Einstein: a life in science by Michael White and John Gribbin (Pocket Books, pounds 6.99) Do not read this book for the great man's unexpectedly active love life. Sniffily dismissing a recent tell-all biography, the authors explain Einsteinian science with exemplary clarity. They note that his molecular theory of 1905 applies "very precisely to a cup of sweet tea". Even Einstein's masterwork, the special theory of relativity, is graphically conveyed. White and Gribbin stress that Einstein had very little to do with the atom bomb, being regarded as an "extreme radical" by the FBI.

The Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton (Oxford, pounds 9.99) Though it's easy to laugh at British folk customs ("the experience of being inside a hobby-horse has

an odd character of its own"), Hutton's deeply researched survey is a fascinating read. He notes that the maypole had no phallic associations and that the post-Guy Fawkes Fireworks Night has taken the place of ancient fire feasts. Though humanity has replaced nature in our festivities, a powerful continuity remains. The Roman writer Libanus complained about "the desire to spend money" which prevailed before the New Year.

The Hay Poisoner

by Martin Beales (Hale, pounds 9.99)

Prior to its recent literary celebrity, Hay-on-Wye was best known for a sensational murder case in 1922. Herbert Armstrong, a dapper solicitor, was executed for poisoning his wife. There is dark humour in the courtroom account of a tea-party where arsenic-laced scones were handed out ("Excuse my fingers") by Armstrong:

"What sort of scone was it?"

"It was a buttered scone."

"Plain or currant?"

"That I cannot tell".

In this painstaking vindication of Armstrong, the author - himself a Hay solicitor - points an accusatory finger at the town's chemist.

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