Paperbacks: Afterwards<br/>The Pirates!<br/>The Very Best of Linda Smith<br/>Great Tales from English History<br/>Sound Bites

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Afterwards, By Rachel Seiffert (Vintage £7.99) fivestar

Afterwards is a novel of great subtlety, with much compressed into its 327 pages – the sort of novel one reads in small doses, 10 or 20 pages at a time, but is always eager to get back to. Alice meets Joseph, an ex-soldier with traumatic memories from his tour of duty in Belfast which he cannot unlock. Alice's own family history has its dark spots: she never knew her father, her grandfather refuses to speak about his time as an RAF pilot bombing the Mau Mau during the Kenyan fight for independence.

The two of them begin a relationship, their pleasure in one another growing in a series of warm and natural scenes – difficult to do without a certain cheesiness creeping in, but Seiffert manages it deftly. Yet the past won't go away – and Seiffert is expert at showing how it's inextricably intermingled with the present, our memories popping into our heads, colouring and informing our experience every hour of the day. Rarely is the use of flashback so uncontrived.

It's a novel about reticence, remorse, family ties and tensions, and the difficulty of building a relationship with someone whose life has areas that cannot be visited.

Seiffert is a wonderfully sympathetic writer, and her strength is her ability to lay bare the inner lives of ordinary, young, working-class people (Alice is a nurse, Joseph a plasterer), showing them to be as full of depth and emotional complexity as the university-educated creative types so many contemporary novelists prefer to write about.

The writing is restrained, cool, intelligent. The reader is not tugged along by plot devices, but lured by interest and sympathy for these people, right up until the end, which eschews climax and quietly peters out, yet in an entirely satisfying way. The final paragraph is a poem in itself.

The Pirates!, By Gideon Defoe (Phoenix £5.99) threestar

Two novels for the price of one here – read one ("In an Adventure With Scientists"), turn the book over and upside down and get stuck into the second ("In an Adventure with Whaling"). Both are easy, comical reads, concerning the exploits of the Pirate Captain and his anonymous crew and their encounters first with Charles Darwin and latterly with Captain Ahab. The characters are paper-thin, the style pedestrian, the plots ludicrous and crammed with anachronisms. But all this is intentional, part of the fun – and for the most part the deliberate thinness of the writing is justified by its comic effects.

The central joke is that these bloodthirsty pirates are in fact childish, silly, vain, effeminate, trivia-obsessed and given to pointless bickering. It's really an extended prose version of the Viz cartoon "The Pathetic Sharks", only with pirates in the title role. Overall, The Pirates! provides a funny, entertaining, diversion which will cheer you up for an hour or two on your journey through this vale of tears.

The Very Best of Linda Smith, Edited by Warren Lakin and Ian Parsons (Hodder £8.99) twostar

As a comedian, radio turn and person the late Linda Smith was much-loved, and this collection of her stand-up performances, radio shows and scripts, interspersed with tributes from such luminaries as Jo Brand and Stephen Fry, is a fitting memorial.

I have to say her comedy was never my cup of tea. She was quick-witted, with a keen, observational eye and a lively sense of the absurd, but the doctrinaire, unforgiving, more-right-on-than-thou nature of the material made it difficult to warm to. Much of the humour is frankly tribal.

The later material is more sophisticated and there are a few good jokes ("Who's that one on Gardeners' World who never wears a bra? That's right, Alan Titchmarsh"). But there's no lightness of touch; these pieces could have been written to illustrate the phrase "heavy irony". If you liked Linda Smith when she was performing you will enjoy this book; if not, there is nothing here to convert you.

Great Tales from English History, By Robert Lacey (Abacus £9.99) fourstar

This might sound like a series of hymns to England's glorious past, the sort of thing that would be narrated in a solemn voice by Alan Titchmarsh over a soundtrack of swelling strings – but it isn't. In a sequence of elegantly-written short chapters, starting with Cheddar Man (c7150BC) and finishing with the discovery of DNA, Robert Lacey debunks as many myths as he confirms, and passes judgement where appropriate – the Crusades, for instance, were an excuse for "self-righteous homicide".

In the process he narrates some brilliant stories. I particularly liked Elmer the Flying Monk, who around AD 1010 glided some 200 metres on home-made wings, before crashing to the ground. For a lesson in how to meet one's end with grace, see the tale of Sir William Collingbourne, who was executed in 1484. After being hanged until almost dead, then cut down and castrated, Sir William still had enough sense of humour left to sigh " Oh Lord Jesus, yet more trouble," as the executioner slit open his belly and tugged out his intestines. It makes you proud to be British.

Sound Bites, By Alex Kapranos (Penguin £7.99) twostar

The subtitle is "Eating on Tour with Franz Ferdinand" – and that basically sums it up. Kapranos, the singer with the rock group, originally wrote these pieces as a series of newspaper columns. They are reminiscences of meals grabbed between gigs in Japan, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, the States, Korea, Portugal etc, as well as scenes from his time as a commis chef before he joined the band, and childhood memories of food experiences in Glasgow.

Kapranos describes eating saveloy dip in South Shields, Rhineland roast pork, freshwater mud crabs in Sydney, donuts in New York, Anthony Bourdain's Rossini burger in Paris (with foie gras and truffle sauce), a bacon and apple pancake in Utrecht and, in Buenos Aires, a bull's testicle, which he can't finish (it tastes like "a bag of green pennies").

Kapranos writes about food well and this certainly has more soul than Nigel Slater's overrated Toast. But it is decidedly on the thin side, only bulked out to 134 pages by Andy Knowles' not particularly fantastic drawings. It fails to be anything more than the sum of its parts: a collection of newspaper columns.