Paperbacks: Bess of Hardwick<br/> A Reading Diary<br/> New Orleans<br/> The Abortionist's Daughter<br/> The Black Book<br/> No Country for Old Men<br/> A Florentine Revenge

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The Independent Culture

Bess of Hardwick, By Mary S Lovell (ABACUS £9.99 (555pp))

According to this accessible biography, Elizabeth I may have turned singledom into a cult, but her near-contemporary, Bess of Hardwick, won her spurs in the marital bed. Older and plainer than the queen, she climbed the ranks through a series of advantageous marriages, each of four husbands leaving her richer and more influential than the last. Born in 1527, the daughter of a country squire, by the time of her death 81 years later Bess headed up one of the most desirable property portfolios in the country. Her final monument, Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, is testament both to her artistic leanings and dynastic ambitions. Several aristocratic lines, including the Dukes of Devonshire, can still claim direct descent. Lovell has researched the lives of several other notable women (including Beryl Markham, Amelia Earhart and the Mitford sisters), but this is her first attempt at a figure from the early-modern period. Interpretation of history's dustier records can be a speculative affair, but Lovell's view of Bess as a shrewd and sexy operator is a convincing one. A revealing portrait of a woman who managed to stay on the right side of the temperamental Tudors, while priming her own granddaughter, Lady Arbella Stuart, for the English throne. EH

A Reading Diary, by Alberto Manguel (CANONGATE £8.99 (253pp))

Over a year, as the Iraq war loomed and he shuttled between literary events abroad and his cherished home in rural France, the genially erudite Manguel re-read 12 favourite books. His charming but pointed "conversation" with them, and us, fuses snippets of memoir - from his life in Argentina, Canada and Europe - with the rapt rediscovery of these beloved companions. They range from (to us) familiar friends such as The Wind in the Willows, Kim and The Sign of Four to Latin American gems by Bioy Casares and Machado de Assis, Margaret Atwood's Surfacing and even Don Quixote. A bookish scrapbook rich in warmth and wisdom. BT

New Orleans, by Louise McKinney (SIGNAL £12 (250pp))

A sorrowful postscript records the Katrina deluge a year ago, but this history-cum-guide to the Big Easy mostly strikes a joyful note. From Louis Armstrong to Tennessee Williams, gumbo to Mardi Gras, Cajuns to Creoles, Dr John to John Kennedy Toole, McKinney conveys her expert passion for the city with a zest that - beyond all the kitsch - answers her own question: "What is alive about New Orleans?" This book, another splendid addition to Signal's fine "Cities of the Imagination" list, revels in the creative energies and the "hard resilience" that can turn a funeral march into a party tune. Not so much an elegy as a bugle-call that points the way towards renewal. BT

The Abortionist's Daughter, by Elisabeth Hyde (PAN £6.99 (285pp))

This smartly written novel packs the sensations of a whodunit into with a more cerebral examination of America's abortion debate. When Diana Duprey, an abortion "provider", is found dead in a Colorado lap-pool, several suspects emerge: pro-life activists, her husband's lover, and the husband himself. The narrative takes a lurid turn when the 26-year-old detective, Huck, with "eyes the colour of blueberries", falls in love with Diana's teen daughter, whose pornographic poses have appeared on the net. Hyde presses new buttons in the Roe v Wade stand-off. EH

The Black Book, by Orhan Pamuk (FABER £7.99 (466pp))

First published in 1990, this exhilarating, labyrinthine Istanbul mystery now receives a glittering new translation from Maureen Freely. A landmark in Turkish fiction, The Black Book kicks off with the quest for a missing woman but sprouts sub-plots and digressions that match the city itself in their sprawling diversity. Galip's search for his lost wife takes us into a maze of tales where we encounter Turkish history and media, food and love, families and memories. A supreme shaggy-dog story, and a love-letter to a unique city, the novel seethes with "dreams conjured up by words". And Pamuk's prose now sparkles, as it should, like waves on the ever-present Bosphorus. BT

No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy (PICADOR £7.99 (309pp))

Best known for All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridien, here McCarthy returns to the Tex-Mex border with a psychotic hit man, a sheriff and a Vietnam vet who stumbles on $2m in cash. A hard-boiled chase ensues as Moss is pursued across Texas's outposts by bounty hunters and dubious lawmen. Notable for laconic dialogue and shut-down emotions, his cowboys remain enigmatic killing machines. EH

A Florentine Revenge, by Christobel Kent (PENGUIN £6.99 (372pp))

In a series of romantic thrillers, Kent has appropriated Florence as Italy's crime capital. In this latest Tuscan adventure, love-lorn guide Ceila Donnelly explores more than the treasures of the Uffizi. Part-way through planning cultural activities for a wealthy English couple, she gets involved in a mystery around the disappearance of a little girl. The novel successfully strays from the tourists' conventional map. EH

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