The chances of survival aren't good in a Dorothy Allison story. Run- away trucks, botched abortions, and suicide pose the biggest threats - though schoolgirl Shannon Pearl takes the biscuit by igniting herself at a local barbecue. Allison's short stories and poems (many of which formed the basis of her much lauded first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina) speak knowingly of the grubby pain of wanting what you cannot have.
The Constant Mistress by Angela Lambert (Penguin, pounds 5.99)
Diagnosed with a fatal illness at the age of 44, Laura decides to spend her last few months in the company of men. Powerful, sophisticated men; men who run banks and law firms; men with names like Bruno, Edouard and Jurgen. A practised storyteller with a soft spot for Eurotrash, Lambert examines what happens to a woman who rejects the lure of domesticity for a more cosmopolitan state of affairs.
The Ottomans by Andrew Wheatcroft (Penguin, pounds 8.99)
Ever since Constantinople fell, Europeans have regarded the Ottomans with horror and fascination. The first sultan to pitch tent within the city's walls was said to have reminded people of "a parrot about to eat ripe cherries", and from this history you can understand why. Pictures of jewel-encrusted palaces and cloistered harems glitter from the pages, and any attempt by the author to disentangle myth from reality falls a little flat.
In Cold Domain by Anne Fine (Penguin, pounds 5.99)
When Barbara announces to her assembled family that she has met the love of her life - Miguel-Angel Gippini Alargon Lopez de Rego, a waiter from the pub next door - they go into overdrive, not least her blue-rinsed mother. Set in the garden of the family estate, Cold Domain, Fine's farce involves a hearty dose of camp innuendo and bare bottoms, all told with a gusto that should make writers of BBC sitcoms hang their heads in shame.
Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge by Iain Sinclair (Vintage, pounds 5.99)
These fragments from the Seventies begin with a dark speculation about Hawksmoor's churches (which also inspired Peter Ackroyd). From this high point, the book declines into allusive rambling in a style which owes something to the Beat poets, but there's no denying Sinclair's acuity. Two decades ago, he was quoting from The Large Scale Structure of Space Time by one S. W. Hawking.
Footsteps by Richard Holmes (Flamingo, pounds 7.99)
Looking at a photograph of Shelley's house near Lucca, Holmes feels "a faint tingling sensation" when he detects a child on the picture's edge: "I felt I was looking at little William, Shelley's dead son". The gulf of a century or two all but disappears as the biographer pursues his subjects. These exciting explorations of literary figures - others include R. L. Stevenson and Wordsworth - come close to time travel.
The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer (Minerva, pounds 6.99)
As a bank robber, Dr Eddie Coffin has several things going against him. He is alcoholic, overweight, accident-prone and a failed philosopher obsessed by words beginning with the letter "Z". With his maimed sidekick Hubert, he muses on metaphysics during messy heists. The gang wear Nietzsche masks - "they're easy to make because of the bog-brush moustache". Of course. Hilarious, fast-moving stuff.
Conflict of Loyalty by Geoffrey Howe (Pan, pounds 8.99)
Despite its title, most of this book is devoted to ovine service in the great offices of state under Margaret Thatcher. Suddenly, after 550 pages, the story takes on an epic momentum as Howe, scorned and excluded, prepares to slay the dragon. No, he says, it was unconnected with his demotion, nor had the formidable Elspeth Howe anything to do with it. Of course not. It was purely policy, purely Europe.