Paperbacks: Constitutional<br/>Kissing Toads<br/>Nothing That Meets the Eye<br/>Hallelujah! The Welcome Table<br/>Keeping Mum<br/>Bicycle<br/>Untold Stories

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The Independent Culture

Constitutional, by Helen Simpson (VINTAGE £7.99 (133pp))

Short-story writer Helen Simpson is well known for capturing the quotidian miseries of middle-class motherhood. In Hey Yeah Right Get a Life she memorably depicted the internal battles waged by women held hostage by cross toddlers and sour teens. Her latest stories also revolve around lives circumscribed by hot meals, but now it's ageing parents and mid-life-crisis husbands who are more likely to be found throwing tantrums in the park. The clichés of contemporary life are Simpson's bread and butter. In the collection's title story, a fortysomething teacher takes a turn around Hampstead Heath, ruminating on the news of her own unexpected pregnancy. In "Early One Morning", a stay-at-home mother negotiating the rush-hour traffic speculates on the "wild tsunami of divorce" affecting her friends. Her own life of "heroic monogamy" passes before us. Going to Relate, she concludes, would be a waste of time - the counsellors being the kind of women "no longer needed on the school run". It is impossible to read a story by Simpson and not enjoy a moment of self-recognition. These latest stories may not deliver the same shock treatment as her earlier work, but at their best they continue to add to the ongoing story of women "needed and wanted, then not needed and not wanted". EH

Kissing Toads, by Jemma Harvey (ARROW £6.99 (406pp))

Media land is never far away from the pages of a chicklit novel. Here, the action takes place among the parasitic crew of a garden makeover TV show. Delphi, a C-list presenter, and Roo, queen of the failed relationship, have been best friends since childhood. When Delphi's celebrity status starts to wane, and Roo's boyfriend runs off with a Romanian actress, the two friends decide to ditch London and sign on for a new lifestyle show in a remote Scottish castle. Cynical without being wise-cracking, sexy without being smutty, the work of second-time novelist Jemma Harvey revisits the angst of the thirtysomethings. EH

Nothing That Meets the Eye, by Patricia Highsmith (BLOOMSBURY £9.99 (464pp))

Only a fraction of Patricia Highsmith's short stories ever appeared in print during her lifetime. This new volume of 28 pieces reminds us just how good she was. Spanning her years as a freelancer in 1940s New York, up to her last days in Switzerland, the collection reveals her fascination with characters of a psychopathic bent. Set in low-rent New York suburbs, the stories take unnatural relish in the lives of murderous post-natal husbands, suicidal singletons and married men who date women as a form of misogynistic revenge. The spirit of Mr Ripley is never far away. EH

Hallelujah! The Welcome Table, by Maya Angelou (VIRAGO £9.99 (214pp))

Cookbook memoirs sell like hot cakes. Recipes are no longer enough. They must be accompanied by memories of granny's chicken soup or first encounters with foreign fare. Maya Angelou keeps her Proustian moments admirably brief. Under such tempting chapter headings as "Potato Salad Towers Over Difficulties", and "Good Banana, Bad Timing", she recalls the recipes and gastronomic highlights of her Alabama childhood. Her adulthood is spent wining and dining the likes of Oprah Winfrey and MFK Fisher. Deep-fried heaven on a plate. EH

Keeping Mum, by Brian Thompson (ATLANTIC £7.99 (258pp))



Brian Thompson's mother would sleep all day, and knit all night, dressed in "a bundle of garish rags and lumpy cardigans". At other times, "dressed to kill", she would find some Yanks and dance the night away. "Of the two mothers," he declares in this wonderful memoir of a wartime childhood,"I much preferred the glamorous temptress." Meanwhile, his father, on his rare trips home, would set his son "herculean" challenges he couldn't hope to meet. Respite arrives in the unlikely form of Queenie and Jockie, his eccentric cockney grandparents. Warm, funny and utterly without self-pity, this is a remarkable study of remarkable resilience. CP

Bicycle, by David V Herlihy (YALE £15.99 (470pp))

Give this book to David Cameron now. In Herlihy's engagingly written and sumptuously illustrated social history of our two-wheeled friend, the humble bike spends 130 years bouncing back from trends that seem to doom (but never do) this perfect piece of transport technology. From China to Nottingham, US bike cops to French racers, his spin around Planet Bicycle proves that nothing has outpaced its "economy, efficiency and charm". BT

Untold Stories, by Alan Bennett (PROFILE £9.99 (658pp))

He's a bit of a history boy himself, Alan Bennett, and not just as the super-talented striver from a modest home, his doubt and distance evident on every wry and wise page of this bumper harvest of memoirs. He also has a gentle knack of fitting his experiences - from parents' deaths to his brushes with celebrity or cancer - into the evolving patterns of class, culture and politics. The Armley lad would never make such big claims, but these finely spun yarns capture the tenor of their times as well as the timbre of a unique voice. BT

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