Paperbacks: All Is Vanity<br></br>The Colour<br></br>Good Faith<br></br>Cathedrals of the Flesh<br></br>At War with Waugh<br></br>Where Did It All Go Right?<br></br>Looking for Sex in Shakespeare

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The Independent Culture

All Is Vanity by Christina Schwarz (REVIEW £7.99 (374pp))

Christina Schwarz's portrait of a talentless wannabe writer will ring bells with anyone who has ever dreamt of instant literary stardom. Not that Schwarz speaks from personal experience - her first novel, Drowning Ruth, was a best-selling Oprah's Book Club choice - but she writes knowingly about the self-imposed humiliations of life in the garret. Margaret Sydner and Letty MacMillan have been best friends since childhood. Margaret teaches at a Manhattan prep school; Letty is a stay-at-home mom, living in a bland suburb of LA. At 35, neither woman feels that she has attained her rightful place in the world. Margaret takes a year off work to write a Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Letty becomes obsessed with finding a new home. In a novel that lurches uncomfortably between chick-lit and something more serious, we follow Margaret as she settles down to a summer of serious procrastination - her novel about a dissolute Vietnam vet taking second place to a lively e-mail correspondence with Letty about West Coast parenting and kitchen redesigns. Margaret starts re-reading Letty's missives for inspiration. Schwarz's breezy page-turner points the finger at mid-life aspirations of all kinds, literary or otherwise, and ends in a bonfire of minor betrayals and burnt-out credit cards. EH

The Colour by Rose Tremain (VINTAGE £6.99 (366pp))

For the egotistical protagonist of Rose Tremain's latest novel, Joseph Blackstone, the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of gold. Joseph, the son of a ruined livestock auctioneer from Norfolk, and his new wife Harriet emigrate to New Zealand in the mid-1860s in search of new beginnings. An ex-governess, Harriet embraces her new life with grim determination. Joseph, not such a courageous soul, succumbs to the temptations of gold fever. A less fanciful posse than Peter Carey's new world bushwhackers, Tremain's pioneers face up to the real emotional cost of life on the open range. EH

Good Faith by Jane Smiley (FABER £7.99 (467pp))

Jane Smiley's latest book exchanges horses for houses, with a nostalgic look back at the Eighties real estate boom. The novel's narrator, Joe Stratford, is an unusually likeable estate agent who enjoys "selling old houses to decent people". At 40, divorced and directionless, he embarks on an adulterous affair with a free-spirited married woman, as good in bed as she is at everything else. High on Reaganomics and desire, he also falls under the sway of an unscrupulous out-of-town businessman, Marcus Burns. In this sleekly written saga of middle- aged sex and unhinged materialism, Smiley gives Roth and Updike a run for their money. EH

Cathedrals of the Flesh by Alexia Brue (BLOOMSBURY £7.99 (230pp))

Turks, Finns and Russians like to steam, the Japanese like to soak, and Americans like to float in fizzing Jacuzzis. The next best thing to a spa weekend, Alexia Brue's story of the quest for the perfect bath is a steamy travelogue of hearty rubdowns and detoxifying purges. A "prudish New Englander" fresh out of college, Brue was first introduced to the joys of continental bathing by her friend Marina. In a scene that teeters on the edge of Euro-porn, she tells how they first derobed in a hamam in Paris. In this ode to cleanliness, she feels most at home with pear-shaped Finns. EH

At War with Waugh by WF Deedes (PAN £6.99 (134pp))

When WF Deedes was sent off to cover the war in Abyssinia in 1935, his taxi crashed into a group of Abyssinians. "The police arrived," he remembers, "and apologised to the white man for the inconvenience caused." He left England with half a ton of luggage, including full evening dress, and filed his copy by telegraph. He also spent a lot of time with a crotchety Evelyn Waugh, who cannibalised the experience for his novel, Scoop. This charming and funny mini-memoir offers a fascinating glimpse of a bygone era. "I am no more the William Boot of Scoop," says Deedes firmly, "than I am the Man in the Moon." CP

Where Did It All Go Right? by Andrew Collins (EBURY £6.99 (336pp))

"Shit happens. But sometimes it doesn't," is the premise of this memoir of "growing up normal in the Seventies". It's a premise that's laboured in this genial but self-indulgent account of bikes, telly and holidays in Wales. Collins's adult musings are juxtaposed with extracts from his childhood diary: "I had a beefberger for dinner. I saw Deputy Dawg and Crackerjack." A mildly amusing nostalgia-fest of love and harmony in a time of flares. CP

Looking for Sex in Shakespeare by Stanley Wells (CAMBRIDGE £10.99 (111pp))

"Did you think I meant country matters?" Hamlet asks Ophelia. We now tend to assume that Shakespeare always did. The leading scholar Stanley Wells has collected recent lectures on Bardic bawdy at the Globe into this handy packet of three essays. Sensibly, he recommends a tempering of frankness with finesse, on stage or in print. A don who wrote on "Bestial Buggery in A Midsummer Night's Dream" is gently reproved for "an imprecise response to the play's tonal register". Asinine, I say. BT