Paperbacks

<i>The Mark of the Angel</i> by Nancy Huston | <i>Galileo's Daughter</i> by Dava Sobel | <i>Vinegar Hill </i>by Manette Ansay | <i>Dolce Vita</i> by Iseult Teran | <i>Regions of the Heart</i> by David Rose &amp; Ed Douglas
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The Independent Culture

The Mark of the Angel by Nancy Huston (Vintage, £6.99, 276pp) Set in Fifties Paris, Nancy Huston's novel couldn't have a more romantic setting. Originally written in French (Canadian-born Huston has lived in France since 1973), The Mark of the Angel was an immediate best-seller. A seductive kaleidoscope of erotic encounters, Parisian landmarks and middle-brow politics, it's not hard to see why.

The Mark of the Angel by Nancy Huston (Vintage, £6.99, 276pp) Set in Fifties Paris, Nancy Huston's novel couldn't have a more romantic setting. Originally written in French (Canadian-born Huston has lived in France since 1973), The Mark of the Angel was an immediate best-seller. A seductive kaleidoscope of erotic encounters, Parisian landmarks and middle-brow politics, it's not hard to see why.

The novel opens in May 1957. The nation is sizzling with post-war energy, Picasso and Brigitte Bardot are the cultural pin ups of the day, and, for most people life is taking on a rosier hue. But just 12 years on from the end of the war, the country is still home to a quiet band of walking wounded. Among these is the novel's enigmatic heroine, Saffie, a young German woman who arrives in Paris looking for work.

Soon employed as housekeeper to the flautist Raphael Lepage, Saffie finds herself closeted away in an apartment on the rue de Seine. Employer and employee begin by sharing meals at the kitchen table, and end up indulging in some master-servant naughtiness under the eaves. Within the month they are married, nine months later they have a son, and within the year Saffie has fallen in love with the Hungarian who fixes her husband's flute.

Huston's portentous prose can be over the top. Her heroine is periodically flung to the ground by orgasmic tremors and unspeakable desires. But for a novel about erotic love and war-time atrocities Huston's style is remarkably unflowery. You never really get to know the characters as people (Saffie's only humanising quality is her motherhood), but that would detract from the melodrama of this addictive tale. EH

Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel (Fourth Estate, £7.99, 429pp) The author of Longitude discovered an even more enthralling story of science when she came across the letters of Galileo's daughter, red sealing-wax still attached. Based on the dialogue between the scientist and Maria Celeste, a gifted nun, this account scores on two levels: its vivid depiction of life in 17th-century Bologna and Galileo's trial for heresy, which climaxed in his recantation of "the false opinion that... the Earth is not the centre and moves". Sadly, it seems that he did not mutter: "And still it moves."

Vinegar Hill by Manette Ansay (Orion, £6.99, 240pp) According to Manette Ansay's first novel, small-town America doesn't get much creepier than Holly's Field, Wisconsin. When Ellen Grier's husband loses his job, she has no choice but to uproot the kids and move in with her in-laws. Their overstuffed house smelling of old age, pale grey skin and Ben-Gay ointment is not just aesthetically noxious, but home to a nasty set of domestic secrets. A classy slice of suburban gothic, Ansay's descriptions of the family's poisonous surroundings are hard to shake off.

Dolce Vita by Iseult Teran (Flamingo, £6.99, 150pp) As in all good débuts, the irritating lapses of Iseult Teran's novel are cancelled out by its charm. In this semi-autobiographical work - the author's mother is the novelist Lisa St Aubin de Teran - Teran's heroine has survived an itinerant childhood with her romantic mother. Now 16 and living in Paris, she is going out with (but not sleeping with) a record producer called Ladders. In pursuit of love and nourishment - she dreams of Burger King take-outs - she seeks safety in the arms of strangers and older men. Shades of Françoise Sagan.

Regions of the Heart by David Rose & Ed Douglas (Penguin, £6.99, 290pp) Gripping and unsentimental, this is the story of Alison Hargreaves, who died aged 33 in 1995 while descending from the summit of K2. Small, likeable, trapped in a crumbling marriage, she was unexceptional - except when tackling the world's great peaks. Hargreaves, who climbed Everest alone and without oxygen shortly before her death, realised the risks she ran on K2: "The trick is not to be up high when a storm comes." Afterwards, this mother of two was criticised for foolhardiness - but would the same have been said of a male mountaineer?

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