Paerbacks: A House of Light

Beyond Black

Evening in the Palace of Reason

Metro Girl

Salonica: City of ghosts

Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon

Forward Book of Poetry 2006

Candida Clark's latest novel marks a departure for a writer who up until now has specialised in elegiac and enigmatic love stories. A House of Light, a psychological thriller set in an English country house, is more firmly grounded in a contemporary reality of seedy businessmen and displaced singletons. Yet the opening scenes take place on terra incognita in the grounds of a luxury hotel on the West African coast. Here we are introduced to Katherine, a young British photographer who, tired of shooting palm trees, starts snapping pictures of nearby industrial plants and rusting container ships. Within three weeks of her return to London, her flat is destroyed in an arson attack. The mystery of Katherine's post-Africa persecution gathers momentum when she returns to her childhood home in Kent - an early Victorian pile in reclaimed marshland. Keeping news of the fire from her father (soon to be remarried), Katherine feels no safer in Chatham than in Gabon or London. That she feels the house haunted by the spirit of her long-dead mother - also a photographer - adds to her growing paranoia. This is an unsettling hybrid of a book, lit by the author's trademark passion for rural landscapes, and a fascination with the more occluded moments of family history.

Beyond Black, by Hilary Mantel

Alison Hart, a medium by trade, tours the dormitory towns of the M25 with her sidekick, Colette. While Alison is fat, soft and slow and has trouble finding her shoes, Colette has no presence beyond that provided by her push-up bra and lycra shorts. In a subversive odd-couple narrative that pits the spiritual world against the service sector, Mantel critiques Blair's Britain with delightfully hellish results. Alison's finest moment coincides with Princess Diana's death. "Oh, fuckerama!" cackles Di from the Other Side, "Give my love to Kingy... And the other kid. Kingy and Thingy." A clarion call to the living dead.

Evening in the Palace of Reason, by James Gaines

If you can forgive some over-egged US magazine-writer prose, Gaines has an enthralling tale to tell. He starts from the meeting in 1747 between the ageing, unfashionable Bach and Frederick the Great - Prussia's Enlightened despot, who set the fading old composer an impossible task. The result was the brilliant Musical Offering. Bach's late testament gives Gaines the cue to recount both men's careers, as standard-bearers for the warm beauty of faith (Bach) and the cold clockwork of reason (Frederick). Yes, the scales tilt towards great music and old-time religion, but Gaines's love of Bach soars above dogmatism.

Metro Girl, by Janet Evanovich
HARPERCOLLINS £6.99 (393pp)

With ten Stephanie Plum mysteries to her name, US crime writer Evanovich branches out with a new wise-cracking heroine, Alex Barnaby. Alex is a mechanic's daughter and, sadly for her female readership, a woman obsessed with cars and spare parts. Though the Plum books were nominally stories of intrigue, the characters were as least as interested in food and men as murder. In contrast, Alex swaps cute banter with the boys about dipsticks and stock racing. In Miami, she is on the trail of her lost brother, whose disappearance is linked with missing gold and even the Cuban missle crisis.

Salonica: City of ghosts, by Mark Mazower

A splendid narrative history of the now-Greek port city that, for 500 years, embodied the multi-cultural Mediterranean at its hybrid, bustling best. Showing via a vivid patchwork of people and events how Muslims, Christians and Jews joined in the Ottoman centuries to build up their cultural and commercial powerhouse, Mazower exposes the "false continuities and convenient silences" of all nationalists. Pasha, priest or prostitute, Salonicans grew rich and famous on live-and-let-live. Then the modern fevers of identity gripped them, and led to tragedy when, in 1943, 45,000 of the city's Jews perished in Auschwitz.

Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, by Jorge Amado
BLOOMSBURY £8.99 (448pp)

Amado, who died at 88 in 2001, was the grand old man of Brazilian literature. This reprint of a 1958 classic has intrigue, assassinations and a high quota of fantastic events. Set in the mid-Twenties in the cocoa-growing town of Ilhéus, the novel describes the impact on the males - and especially on Nacib the Arab bar-owner - of a beautiful mulatto girl. A tale of murder, miracles, food, revenge and well-dressed balconies.

Forward Book of Poetry 2006
FORWARD £8.99 (147pp)

A reliably rich catch from the Forward Prizes, with winning pieces by this year's victors (David Harsent, Paul Farley, Helen Farish) beside striking new works from the poetic A-list: Carol Ann Duffy and Paul Muldoon to Alice Oswald. It's a mouth-watering taster for poetry lovers, but also a toe-in-the-water treat for sceptics. Forget polemics and savour the real deal. What the late Julia Darling writes of her beloved Newcastle goes for poetry as a whole: "Don't give it a mirror. Let it be itself."

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