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Painting Out Oscar by Nina Dufort, Flame, £6.99, 296pp

Painting Out Oscar by Nina Dufort, Flame, £6.99, 296pp

THE DIVORCED woman seems to have replaced the plucky hopeful as middlebrow literature's favourite heroine. Always wronged, always pretty and always rewarded by the love of a better man, the stars of these fin- de-siecle fantasies follow satisfyingly similar routes to the altar: a brush with independence (in which the woman becomes a successful artist/ writer/ TV producer); a reunion with the ex (revealed as an impotent, overweight, loser); and revelatory sex and babies with a carpenter, gardener or other sensitive manual labourer.

Nina Dufort's companionable second novel is no exception. Bea Kerepol, a 31-year-old artist, assumes she is happily married, until husband Oscar runs off with a wealthy women in high heels and silk shirts. Not so devastated, though, that she hasn't the energy to quit her job at the local bookshop, decamp to a starkly beautiful hidey-hole on the Kent coast, and devote herself full time to her Art.

Self-sufficiency and self-realisation are Bea's aims, and, as in any good girl's adventure story, the charm of Dufort's novel lies in the detail. Equipped with supplies (squashed fly biscuits, ham-and-pea soup and a turquoise wine glass), entertainment (her grandmother's copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales) and a mobile phone, Bea combs the beach for driftwood and inspiration. What she turns up is the sweetly-named Francis Nutmeg, a red-haired geologist/ fisherman with an Irish brogue and serious cheekbones. Refusing to sleep with "Nut" until she secures a London show for her work - even leaving the field wide open for her predatory best friend - Bea buckles down to her white canvasses.

The author (herself an artist) conjures up the washed-out blue of the Kentish marshes with enjoyment, and her cast of bucolic hobos and wise old women stays just the right side of hokey. EH

Elizabeth David by Lisa Chaney, Pan, £10, 482pp

A JUDICIOUS account of this complex heroine. She was an exotic - daughter of a Tory MP, traveller, bossy boots, unlucky in love, found compatibility with Norman Douglas ("he befriended Italians. A number had always been small boys") but sexy too. She even "put her cigarette out... in a sexy way." Her life clicked with her first food article at 36: "authoritative, tart and evocative". She hid when the Snowdons swanned into her shop: "She couldn't stand them." Like its subject, this book is serious and entrancing.

Gorgeous by Lynne Bryan, Sceptre, £6.99, 230pp

MRS RITA Swales is in her prime: 48, fanciable and the owner of a house-sitting agency, she has surfaced from a Midlands housing estate into a world of Dettol-fresh loos and pine coffee tables. The only blot on the landscape is husband Collis, still malingering after his accident at the pie factory. In a different league from her short-story collection Envy at the Cheese Handout, Bryan's stylish first novel bubbles with repartee, and some of the most moving descriptions of housework since Victoria Wood.

Strange Places, Questionable People by John Simpson, Pan, £6.99, 566pp

DON'T BE lured by the blurb about the Beeb's veteran leg-man "narrowly avoiding entrapment by a beautiful Czech secret agent". The passionate entanglement turns out to be no more than a glance at a hotel receptionist. But the bullets and the Cruise missiles are real enough. "I thought it likely that I would be dead by the next evening," he writes of his famous stint in Baghdad. The mother of all enemies, however, turns out to be his employer of 30 years: "The BBC does these things [sackings] with unparalleled brutality."

George III: a personal history by Christopher Hibbert, Penguin, £8.99, 464pp

GEORGE III is the king we all know. He was, of course, Nigel Hawthorne. This enthralling portrait reveals the real George was more engaging than the film version. Both Dr Johnson and John Adams, the first US ambassador, adored him. It is thanks to George that our own HM has a pied-a-terre in Belgravia and a rural pad in Windsor. Contrary to the happy cinematic ending, the mad business was never cured - though there were spells of remission. When Prinny was ill, a wag suggested the King should be Vice- Regent to the Regent.

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