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The Smile of Murugan by Michael Wood (Penguin, pounds 6.99) The TV historian's old-fashioned travelogue on the "seething, fecund" holy places of Tamil Nadu is a mixture of sympathetic observation, enchanted enthralment and twaddle. His tour resulted from the predictions of an astrologer who said he would one day visit the temples of southern India. Surprise, surprise, four years later, he was back, following the exact itinerary forecast by the seer. Though Wood is beguiled his style is so po-faced and bland that it is hard to maintain interest.

Sellout by James Adams (Penguin, pounds 6.99) This book makes it plain why the FBI refers to the CIA as T-Bar (Those Bastards Across the River) Aldrich Ames, an alcoholic, yet highly-rated CIA agent, was America's Philby. In the nine years before his arrest in 1995, he revealed the identities of all the CIA's major sources in the USSR - at least 10 were killed as a result - along with every field agent. Though customarily stingy, the Soviets forked out $2.7 million for his services. It was Ames' rash spending, including a Jag and a $500,000 house, which proved his undoing. While no stylist, Adams unravels the yarn with great energy.

One Art: The Selected Letters by Elizabeth Bishop (Pimlico, pounds 14.00) This unexpected literary bequest by a great, if overlooked poet is an unalloyed treasure, awash with sparkling intelligence and good humour. Though prone to alcoholism, her prose never falters and her judgements ("Dylan Thomas's poetry is...a straight conduit between birth and death - with not much space for living along the way") are spot-on. Not the least of the many pleasures here are the exotic locations, including Key West, Haiti and Brazil, where she lived for 15 years - though it is disappointing to learn that the euphonious Belo Horizonte is "the world's ugliest city".

Panama by Eric Zencey (Sceptre, pounds 5.99) Despite the title, this addictive intellectual thriller is mainly set in Belle Epoque France. Visiting Brittany, the American historian Henry Adams is smitten by expatriate painter Miriam Talbott. When she fails to keep an assignation in Paris, Adams discovers that she is embroiled in a vast embezzlement associated with the Panama Canal. Though the drowned body of Miriam Talbott turns up - it is not the woman Adams knew. Murky and twisting as a rive gauche alleyway, the story is given substance by immaculate period detail.

Seduction Theory by Thomas Beller (Abacus, pounds 6.99) Thomas Beller's tales from the Upper West Side are just this side of slick. Focussing on the life and times of Alex Fader - a dumpy teenager who spends his afternoons baking chocolate eclairs in the Dakota building - the collection's other stories monitor the fragile progress of young lust: couples forced to negotiate happiness under the too bright New York sunshine, or in late- night cab rides back to the student dorm. A male Susan Minot, with, judging from his jacket photo, looks to match.

Dreamhouse by Alison Habens (Minerva, pounds 6.99) Celia Small already has the roast beef in the oven, and her Laura Ashley dinner service on the table, when her flatmates decide to throw an alternative party of their own. Set over the course of one chaotic Saturday evening, Habens' exuberant first novel (which includes one of the best descriptions of a student kitchen ever written) tells how Celia's meal with the in-laws spills over into the psychedelic drug-fest going on upstairs. If you don't last the book, or the party, it could be that you are over 21. The Young Ones meets Lewis Carroll.

Burning your Boats by Angela Carter (Vintage, pounds 8.99) Angela Carter first started writing short stories when she was "living in a room too small to write a novel in". These collected stories (which span the Sixties to her early death in 1992,) show her early interest in folklore, fairy tales and the powerful properties of menstrual blood. Fearsome gothic masterpieces like ''The Bloody Chamber'' and ''The Company of Wolves'' sit happily beside the author's equally pleasing tales of dotty old ladies in Wandsworth. The perfect introduction to one of academia's favourite contemporary writers.

The Facts of Life by Patrick Gale (Flamingo, pounds 5.99) A wonderfully readable family saga, Patrick Gale's latest novel kicks off with a war-time romance between a young Jewish TB sufferer and his fresh-faced English doctor. All is rosy for the couple until they set up home in a Mysterious Fenland folly, where ill fortune seems to descend on them with the regularity of bad weather. Fifties movie stars, waspish dons and wise old women make up the supporting cast in a novel that is as straightforward as it is otherworldly - like reading Iris Murdoch without the puzzles.

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