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The Independent Culture
Lost in Music by Giles Smith (Picador, pounds 5.99). Fancying Sting's job (''Great pay. Superb hours too''), Giles Smith paid his dues in Colchester bands such as Pony (a name with unfortunate rhyming slang potential: pony and trap), Fallout and the Orphans of Babylon, before hitting the small time with the Cleaners from Venus, who were signed up by RCA Germany ("Why German? Because nobody else would have us''). Now a journalist, Smith says his last royalty payment was 39p.

Kiss and Tell by Alain de Botton (Picador, pounds 5.99). Challenging the idea that only the great are fit fodder for biography, Alain de Botton's novel works on the premise that the next person to walk into your life will be just as worthy of study as Stalin or Napoleon - or, in this case, Isabel Jane Rogers, a girl with an expensive preference for Clarin's beauty products and unreliable men. With quotes from Dr Johnson, Phil Collins and Anita Brookner (and his own diagrams and illustrations), de Botton examines, with his customary urbane ease, the difficulties of being understood.

The Virago Book of Women Gardeners edited by Deborah Kellaway (pounds 7.99). How can you resist a trawl of trowel-wielders which starts with a section on weeds (''the nastiest is that sycophant, Dock'')? Women gardeners prove particularly perceptive on colour and scent (''the unpleasantly fishy hawthorn flowers''). It is a delight to re-discover Vita Sackville-West, but the soppy Elizabeth von Arnim (''the awful purity of nature when all the sin and ugliness is shut up and asleep'') should go on the compost heap. Germaine Greer provides an astringent corrective. ''Rabbits are bloody bastards. Absolute bloody bastards.'' A treasury of the greatest female art-form.

An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel (Penguin, pounds 5.99). Set in a university hall of residence in Seventies London, Hilary Mantel's novel takes a wonderfully unsentimental look at a group of young females about to launch themselves on the world. All from the same dreary Lancashire town (though from varying social strata), Carmel, Karina and Julianne leave behind their childhood days of Bunty comics and sexless uniforms for a new life of afghan coats and unexpected pregnancies. Funny, sharp and bleak - The Girls of Slender Means a generation on.

A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester (Papermac, pounds 12). Turning his attention to the medieval world, the bio-grapher of Churchill and Kennedy has produced a curate's egg of popular history. Served up with lashings of purple prose, his introductory panorama is like a ghoulish scene from Bosch. In fact, as revealed by Chaucer, the people were pretty much like us. Manchester hits his stride with deft profiles of the giant figures who transformed the era - Leonardo, Erasmus, Luther, Henry VIII. His concluding account of Magellan's titanic feat of circumnavigation is a triumph. This is precisely the work to spark a passion for history in a literate teenager.

Astonishing the Gods by Ben Okri (Phoenix, pounds 5.99).

A master of dream-like fables, Ben Okri tells the story of a nameless, invisible man who sets off on a seven-year adventure in search of the ''secret of visibility''. Finally arriving on the shores of a mysterious island, a place of ''limpid voices'' and ''flavoured moonlight'', our pilgrim encounters the spiritual guides who will answer his questions. A book of glittering landscapes and fairy- tale tests, much as if John Bunyan and the writers of Star Trek had decided to get together for a spectacular one-off.