Paperbacks

Saint Rachel by Michael Bracewell (Vintage, pounds 5.99). Feeling as run-down as the Mayfair club into which he has moved, John treats himself to a lavender-scented bath and once again runs through the closing scenes of his failing marriage. Bracewell's musings on post-marital depression and his accompanying snap-shots of comfortable London living (Soho restaurants, ivory-coloured duvets, Prozac dependency and unlikely sex) are nicely done, but in the end more suited to the inches of a personal column than the pages of a novel. A book with a fragile storyline, its highly dramatic conclusion might leave you laughing.

Bold in her Breeches edited by Jo Stanley (Pandora, pounds 7.99). From Pirate Queens to swash-buckling lasses, many a girlish heart has thrilled to the song of the Jolly Roger. There was Grace O'Malley and her fearsome Irish fleet, and those lively old salts Mary Read and Ann Bonny who so delighted 18th-century chroniclers with their tales of amorous adventures and cross-dressing. A collections of essays which reclaims these sea-faring women from the stuff of myth, and remembers those who skivvied, cooked and slept their way across the high seas. Strong on dramatis personae, less watertight on historical analysis.

Perfect Love by Elizabeth Buchan (Pan Books, pounds 5.99) If you like Joanna Trollope or Mary Wesley, Elizabeth Buchan is for you. Set in a small village outside Winchester, Prue Valour divides her time between the local bookshop and daily runs to the station. It's a world where dogs and husbands share similar names (Max, Mungo, Cosmo) and similar natures. So it comes as some surprise when virtuous Prue finds herself falling for her stepdaughter's man. A light-hearted portrait of a home counties marriage - if it's that kind of thing that gets your Horlicks bubbling.

School for Women by Jane Miller (Virago, pounds 8.99). For over a century, education has been in the hands of women. Today 60 per cent of all teachers in Britain are women, but it's a fact barely acknowledged in any public discussion of the subject. In an absorbing series of essays, Jane Miller traces the ''long and choppy'' history of women in teaching both here and in the States (Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables etc), and looks at current debates in education: particularly at why girls' increasing success in the classroom is viewed with such alarm.

The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind by David Guterson (Bloomsbury, pounds 5.99). Pin-sharp stories from a writer who has been compared with Raymond Carver. Mostly set in northwestern America, they share a common theme of loss of innocence. Poignant, oddly potent, they often jump in time: a man caught in a fragmenting relationship recalls his disturbing sexual awakening as a teenager: a boy who prizes baseball above his girlfriend emerges as a man obsessed by the ''widening aloneness'' of maturity.

Dina's Book by Herbjorg Wassmo (Black Swan, pounds 6.99). It must be the call of ancestral voices, but the British seem irresistibly drawn to satires set in lands snowier and more ice-bound than their own. Even better than Peter Hoeg in this respect, Herbjorg Wassmo's novel (a bestseller in her native Norway) features tinkling sleighbells, raging fjords and candle- lit castles. In a story of gothic proportions, a young girl of noble birth scalds her mother to death with a kettle of red-hot lye, and goes on to develop a passion for savagery in all its forms. If it wasn't Norwegian, it might be considered a load of schitoscrappen.

Pictures from the Water Trade by David John Morley (Abacus, pounds 7.99) From sleazy bars and strip joints (the "water trade"), to the austere propriety of the domestic milieu, Morley probes Japanese society as no Western writer before. But why adopt an alter-ego named Boon for the task? The answer is sex. An affair with a bar girl is described in salacious detail. For all his brilliant insights and in-depth knowledge of this alien culture, Morley has a berg-sized chunk of ice at the heart of his soul.

If This Is a Man/ The Truce by Primo Levi (Vintage, pounds 7.99) Two tremendous autobiographical works based on Levi's 11-month incarceration in Auschwitz - only three survived of the 650 who arrived on his train - and his slow, circuitous return to Italy. Despite the inconceivable horrors described here, this is not a difficult book to read. Levi's superb, elegant prose is itself a beacon of humanity. But back home in Turin, the camp's "feared and expected'' dawn command continued to dominate his dreams: ''get up, Wstawach''.

Efforts at Truth by Nicholas Mosley (Minerva, pounds 7.99). More "notes towards an autobiography" than a polished account, combining musings, theology and lit crit of the N Mosley oeuvre. Instead of the usual nursery memories, this books kicks off with an in-depth analysis of his first novel. Though a bit self-indulgent and po-faced, his absorption with ideas produces a stimulating read. Things are enlivened by a brush with Hollywood, several affairs and vicious family feuding, with his father, Oswald, spouting racism for years after the war.

Software for the Self by Anthony Smith (Faber, pounds 7.99). Buttressed by a torrent of showy references, Smith offers a sketchy examination of how culture has been redefined over the past couple of centuries. He peaks in a frenzy of excitement about the new electronic toys: ''we are entering a realm of high definition, interactive and mutually convergent technologies of communication.'' It never seems to occur to him that virtual reality really could be a dud or the superhighway might remain the preserve of anoraks.

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