Paperbacks

<i>The Orchid Thief</i> by Susan Orlean | <i>The Memory Box</i> by Margaret Forster | <i>Streetsmart </i>by Nicholas Coleridge
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The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (Vintage, £6.99, 350pp)

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (Vintage, £6.99, 350pp)

There can be few works on a botanical theme as hilarious, fascinating and revealing about human oddity. A writer on the New Yorker, Orlean was prompted to explore the steamy world of Florida orchid fanciers after seeing a newspaper item about four men accused of plant thefts from a swamp called the Fakahatchee Strand. The ring-leader, an unreliable, misanthropic, obsessional called John Laroche is the central figure of her book.

With his reluctant assistance, Orlean learns about the protean orchid family: "One looks like an octopus. One looks like a human nose. One looks like Mickey Mouse. One looks like a monkey." Orchid fanciers turn out to be as varied as the plants, ranging from a pampered scion of the Fuchs family (hence fuchsia) to a smuggler and his wife.

Orlean brilliantly evokes the stifling heat and seedy suburbs of Florida. Though the oozy Fakahatchee resisted the zeal of developers, this didn't prevent large swathes being sold by con-men. To her surprise, she finds herself plunging into this alligator-rich stew, while accompanying a park ranger and two convicts in a search for stolen orchids.

After being fined $500, Laroche decided he was through with orchids. His new obsession comes as no great surprise: "Being an Internet pornography publisher was, in his mind, another chance to profit from human weakness." At the end of the book, he takes Orlean for a final visit to the swamp. They immediately get lost. Despite wanting "to actually murder him," she acknowledges "It was a place so rich no one could help but pass through it and say to himself, I will find something here." CH

The Memory Box by Margaret Forster (Penguin, £6.99, 276pp)

In Margaret Forster's page-turning new novel, a grown-up daughter learns about her long dead mother via objects left in a "Memory Box". Seduced by these prettily wrapped clues, 31-year old Catherine is drawn to a parent whom she has fought for so long to keep on the sidelines of her emotional life. What the box reveals is a woman far more complex and surprising than family legend has implied. Few people write as well about families as Forster, who knows as much about where her characters have come from as what they have become.

Streetsmart by Nicholas Coleridge (Orion, £5.99, 424pp)

One shoulder pressed against the sleeve of John Kennedy's camel coat, the other blocking out Carolyn Bessette's designer dress, English born magazine editor Saskia Thompson poses for the cameras on her way out from a star-studded event at the Waldorf. For both editors, it turns out to be their last appearance in the world press. The next morning Saskia is found dead in her bathroom, and we all know what happens to glamorous John John. Nicholas Coleridge's pacy potboiler makes working for a glossy magazine sound like of life's more dangerous career moves.

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