Paperbacks: Descent<br/>The Voyage Home<br/>Lytton Strachey by Himself<br/>The Secret Purposes<br/>Dry<br/>Sniper<br/>The Earth: an intimate history

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The Independent Culture

Sabrina Broadbent's entertaining novel charts the downward trajectory of an imploding marriage. It's a familiar story, but kept airborne with a helping of contemporary colour.

Descent by Sabrina Broadbent (VINTAGE £7.99 (323pp))

Sabrina Broadbent's entertaining novel charts the downward trajectory of an imploding marriage. It's a familiar story, but kept airborne with a helping of contemporary colour. The novel's narrator, psychiatric nurse Genevieve O'Dowd, doesn't see much of her husband. While film-maker Mark is away on location, Genevieve is stuck in North London juggling work, babies, and unreliable builders. Disregarding what is obvious to her circle of close friends - that Mark has long since flown the nest - she lives for his perfunctory phone calls from Budapest, New York or Rome. In this convincing roman à clef - Broadbent's ex-husband is the film director Michael Winterbottom - there's a tone that veers from a bitterness to moments of unabashed sentimentality for a relationship gone sour. The more disturbing consequences of marital breakdown are saved for the benighted souls of Genevieve's psychiatric unit. At one point, Genevieve attempts to kick-start her research career by delivering a paper on "Women and Madness". Framed by the Lockerbie disaster and September 11, this absorbing tale of domestic catastrophe doesn't offer many olive branches between the sexes. Gorgeous starlets, the author seems to say, will always win over postpartum wives. Lesson for life: never marry a film director. EH

The Voyage Home by Jane Rogers (ABACUS £7.99 (370pp))

Jane Rogers, author of Mr Wroe's Virgins, likes to place moral crises centre-stage. Her latest novel unpicks a particularly gruesome dilemma. Anne, a teacher in her thirties, has travelled to Africa to bury her missionary father. On the voyage home to England from Nigeria, she reads his diaries - reflecting on a complex man whose influence she has never escaped. During her time aboard ship, she comes upon two stowaways - a young man and his pregnant wife. Later on during the voyage, it becomes clear that the woman has been thrown overboard. A richly layered drama in which guilt and depression are never far away. EH

Lytton Strachey by Himself. Ed Michael Holroyd (ABACUS £7.99 (246pp))

Paul Levy's new edition of Lytton Strachey's letters concentrates on his subject's busy sex life. This re-issued collection of diaries, edited by Michael Holroyd, is a less priapic affair - kicking off, as it does, with a discussion of the writer's childhood diaries. Kept between the ages of 10 and 11, these astonishingly mature entries, along with a later essay, enable Holroyd to capture Strachey's early life in the family home at Lancaster Gate - a gloomy gas-lit London mansion whose ugly decor made him anxious for escape. "Mama read the Iliad" is the young Strachey's doleful sign-off. EH

The Secret Purposes by David Baddiel (ABACUS £6.99 (408pp))

Novels written by comics are usually best avoided - but there is nothing lightweight about the opening of David Baddiel's third book. It's 1934 and an elderly rabbi is walking through his home town of Konigsberg. He crosses the city's seven bridges ruminating on Jewish history and the nature of sin. At the last bridge he is stopped by two abusive German soldiers. Five years on, and the rabbi's son, Isaac, has fled Germany for England, from where he is deported to the Isle of Man. This is a subtle and memorable novel about life for internees in Forties Britain. EH

Dry by Augusten Burroughs (ATLANTIC £7.99 (295pp))

Augusten Burroughs' first book, Running with Scissors, was one of the outstanding memoirs of recent years: wildly energetic, touching and unbelievably funny. It's hard to believe he could match it, but he has. Dry picks up the tale a few years on, when Burroughs, now in advertising, is knocking back at least a bottle of spirits a night. Forced by his employers into rehab, he starts a new life of fluorescent-lit group therapy, "McFish thing" lunches on red plastic trays and end-of-session pick-me-ups with stuffed animals. Back in New York, however, reality, and mortality, hits. It's all utterly hilarious and, in the end, extremely moving. CP

Sniper by Pavel Hak (SERPENT'S TAIL £7.99 (121pp))

A stern moral fable or a sick slice of war porn? This novella by a Paris-based Czech (vividly translated by Gerry Feehily) wins the benefit of the doubt, but with queasy moments along the way. In a conflict based on Balkan carnage, a lone sniper pots distant civilians while a squad of soldiers rape and torture (graphically) as a refugee tries to rescue his parents' corpses. This "eruption of the bestial" happened under our smug European noses, and Pavel Hak rubs them in it without pity. BT

The Earth: an intimate history by Richard Fortey (HARPERPERENNIAL £9.99 (501pp))

A tour de force as sublime and exciting as the peaks, coasts and canyons it describes. Fortey, senior palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum, transforms geology from the Cinderella of science writing into its diamond-bedecked diva. His erudite but readably Palin-esque journey visits the holy places of earth science: Alps to Arizona, India to Hawaii. Rich detail shows how the rocks of ages make - or mar - the human worlds above. This grand tour starts and stops (where else?) in the shadow of Vesuvius. BT

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