Paperbacks

<i>Weird Sister</i> by Kate Pullinger <i>Cairo in the War</i> by Artemis Cooper <i>H<SUP>2</SUP>0 </i>by Philip Ball
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The Independent Culture

Weird Sister by Kate Pullinger (Phoenix, £6.99, 308pp) With three previous novels and two collections of short stories under her belt (and a screenwriter's credit for Jane Campion's The Piano), Canadian-born writer Kate Pullinger isn't afraid of new approaches. Her latest novel, a gothic tale of Fenland witchery, adopts a tight narrative style that serves both to constrain and flatter her quirkier imaginings.

Weird Sister by Kate Pullinger (Phoenix, £6.99, 308pp) With three previous novels and two collections of short stories under her belt (and a screenwriter's credit for Jane Campion's The Piano), Canadian-born writer Kate Pullinger isn't afraid of new approaches. Her latest novel, a gothic tale of Fenland witchery, adopts a tight narrative style that serves both to constrain and flatter her quirkier imaginings.

Agnes Samuel is American, beautiful, witty and sophisticated. She arrives in the bleak Cambridgeshire village of Warboys, and takes up residence in the local pub. Drawn to her warm smile and soothing physicality, both men and women want to befriend her, but it's Robert Throckmorton, the village's most eligible bachelor, who gets to roll with her on the frilly duvet upstairs.

That there's something spooky about this green-eyed American is clear from page one, when we learn the story of an execution 400 years before of a young woman, also called Agnes, accused of witchcraft - so when the modern Agnes's eyes turn black, or eggs crack in her presence, we know something otherworldly is afoot. If this sounds all a little OTT and Anne Rice-ish, it is, but cased in a sharp and contemporary narrative primarily concerned with sex and relationships, revenge and regret. The dominant voices of the book belong to two thirtysomethings: Robert (who marries Agnes), and Elizabeth (the woman everyone assumed Richard would marry).

Pullinger's gruesome tale unfolds in short, portentous chapters. And as the mist creeps in from the fens, and the Throckmortons hole up for a family Christmas, it becomes increasingly unclear to the reader who is persecuting whom.

Cairo in the War by Artemis Cooper (Penguin, £9.99, 370pp) An enthralling account of this extraordinary Allied outpost. Though thronged with refugees and 35,000 troops, Cairo was in many ways unaffected by the war. Having lost £800 gambling on the boat over, Randolph Churchill spent his time in nightclubs with local girls. Others took the war more seriously, such as the surgeon who encouraged his men to be circumcised (so avoiding sand trouble) by operating on himself in the parade ground. Combining anecdotes and brilliant research, this must be one of the most entertaining war books ever published.

H 20 by Philip Ball (Phoenix, £7.99, 387pp) Though not quite the "biography of water" he claims, Ball has produced a wide-ranging account about the science of this profoundly unusual liquid. He explains such mysteries as why, unlike other liquids, water expands both when heated and cooled, why ice forms at the top of a pond, why snow sticks together in snowballs (the cause of disputes between Victorian scientists) and why birds, reptiles and sharks do not urinate. A fascinating celebration - but not an ideal present for anyone who's had an excess of the stuff in recent weeks.

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