A Rough Guide to the Heart by Pam Houston | Yes We Have No by Nik Cohn | Chocolat by Joanne Harris | Gerald Durrell by Douglas Botting | Foreign Brides by Elena Lappin
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The Independent Culture

A Rough Guide to the Heart by Pam Houston (Virago, £10.99, 288pp) Eight years ago Pam Houston rode into town with a début short-story collection entitled Cowboys are My Weakness. A 30-year-old female who knew about life on the range and could write a decent sentence was a seductive combination, and Houston has lived on her backwoodsie laurels ever since.

Her latest book, part travel journalism, part personal memoir, catches up on the last five years of her larger than life existence - including the annus mirabilis in which she managed "to get a book of short stories published, run seven of the country's most difficult rivers, lead a photographic safari in Africa and teach a bunch of 18-year-old Mormon students to love poetry."

If this sounds exhausting, matters only get worse, as in chapter after chapter we are treated to yet more descriptions of Duke of Edinburgh-style adventures: chasing North American game; ice-climbing in the Yukon territory; running 44 whitewater rivers, visiting every state in America except for North Dakota and being mugged several times in the San Francisco Bay area.

Houston hasn't lost her knack for conjuring up the wilderness, and the book includes breathtaking descriptions of snow-capped mountains and "Utah-blue" skies, while the funniest chapter describes a back-to-nature holiday that involves a a group of reconstructed urbanites who are forced to spend three days without a hair-wash.

But Houston fans may be disappointed to discover that the author's love affair with the great outdoors stops short at embracing members of the male population as well.

Now pushing 40, Houston confesses to nights wrapped round the comfortable figure of Dante. "Nose to nose, heads on the pillow, his body prone and longer than mine, one foreleg thrown across my middle, one back leg thrown across my legs."

The fact that Dante is an Irish wolfhound and not an Italian short-order cook is as disappointing as it is disconcerting.

Still, there's plenty of get up and go inthe old girl yet. Just skip all references to canines and spiritual journeys. EH

Yes We Have No by Nik Cohn (Vintage, £7.99, 357pp) Explored by writers from Orwell to Iain Sinclair, England's anarchic underbelly is scarcely terra incognita, but Cohn illuminates the alleyways of Hebden Bridge and Hounslow with the gusto he applied to Broadway. Accompanied by Mary, an Antrim Odinist obsessed by techno music, Cohn is open to all-comers. An Elvis-besotted hairdresser tells him: "A serious haircut is a very spiritual thing." At a Bournemouth disco, a girl explains why she gave him a French kiss: "I thought you were me dad."

Chocolat by Joanne Harris (Black Swan, £6.99, 320pp) When single mother Vianne Rocher arrives in the small French village of Lansquenet, tongues start to wag, and then to salivate. Opening up a chocolate "boutique" opposite the church, she wins over the locals with her rum truffles and Nipples of Venus. Her narrative foil, a foxy priest, determines to run both Vianne and her temptations out of town. With its peasants and grandes fêtes, this sub-Michÿle Roberts fantasy of rural France is tempered by a little light philosophising on the dangers of denial.

Gerald Durrell by Douglas Botting (HarperCollins, £9.99, 644pp) In this epic portrait, Botting suggests that Durrell's haphazard upbringing, described in My Family and Other Animals, was the making of him: "It left his innate intelligence unchannelled". His energy is impressive, whether trekking in the Cameroons or creating his zoo in Jersey. On bad days, however, his unfettered spirit demanded a bottle of ouzo before lunch. Some readers may find themselves immune to the "Durrell charm", but it is undeniable that the man was a phenomenon.

Foreign Brides by Elena Lappin (Picador, £6.99, 208pp) "Finchley Grove versus Ramat Gan Post-Holocaust Modern" is how the Israeli wife in Elena Lappin's opening story sums up her marriage to an unknown Englishman. The other stories in this delightful first collection echo similar themes, as exiled souls are stranded in characterless suburbs and unfortunate relationships. Witty, ironic and unafraid - one of her characters is forced to leave Prague for the States after losing control of her bowels in public - Lappin makes the state of exile her natural home.