Paperbacks: Hatchett & Lycett <br></br>The Seven Sisters <br></br>Rough Guide History of Islam <br></br>Everything is Illuminated <br></br>A Party in San Niccolo

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The Independent Culture

Hatchett & Lycett by Nigel Williams (Penguin, £6.99, 423pp)

A writer who specialises in murderous goings-on in the south London suburbs, Nigel Williams has upped the comic ante by setting his latest farce in the early years of the Second World War. His most subtly constructed spoof to date, the novel pastiches Agatha Christie and Evelyn Waugh, though is closer in spirit to Dad's Army and The Happiest Days of Our Lives. Hatchett and Lycett, also known as Dennis and Alec, have been friends since prep school. For years they have shared a crush on Norma Lewis, daughter of their former schoolmaster. When, as adults, all three find themselves teaching in single-sex schools in the Croydon area, the triangle continues. Eventually Dennis proposes to Norma on a school trip, though by the outbreak of war, Norma finds herself engaged to Alec ("It was so marvellous to Roger you.") In what turns out to be an increasingly complicated whodunit, Norma's fellow teachers at Saltdene School for Girls begin to drop like flies: the first victim being Miss Everett, a lesbian Spanish teacher. Thereafter, a whole slew of sensible-shoed women meet their maker. Williams's wartime subplots get ever more tricksy (the secrets of nuclear fission are at stake), but his comic creations are inspired. Hatchett is the British underdog personified, while his schoolgirls include scholarship girl Ruth Mayhew, who likes to sidle up to teachers bearing the irrefutable news "I've started." The novel will have you sniggering as hard as members of Saltdene's Lower Fifth.

The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble (Penguin, £6.99, 307pp)

At one point in this absorbing novel, Margaret Drabble's latest heroine talks about how impossible it is to enter into the consciousness of another person, or "to escape from one's own". Candida Wilton, however, seems as convincing as a fictitious creation can get. A middle-aged divorcee, newly transplanted to London, she records in a diary attempts to negotiate urban life (health clubs, the tube) and lay her marital past to rest. Inspired by an evening class on the Aeneid, she and six companions set out for Tunis and Naples. In characteristically scholarly fashion, Drabble introduces classical allusion into the story, though what sticks most in the memory are her arresting descriptions of the landscapes of the south.

Rough Guide History of Islam by Justin Wintle (Rough Guides/Penguin, £7.99, 520pp)

Even the most secular reader might call this chunky primer an absolute godsend. We have too many partisan interpretations of Islam; Wintle provides all the missing ballast of fact and history. A year-by-year timeline since the Prophet's birth (c.570) is interspersed with 80 thematic essays (from jihad to Khomeini), salient quotations, useful maps, and summaries of each period. Balanced, comprehensive, enlightening - and a triumph for the new Rough Guides stable of handy historical reference books.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Penguin, £6.99, 276pp)

Like Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer is the kind of writer with enough chutzpah to get away with making himself the quasi-fictional hero of his own novel. Jonathan is on a trip to Ukraine to investigate his grandfather's life. He hires Alex, infatuated with all things American, as his translator. In a book with two madly infectious voices - some of the best jokes involve Alex's strangely sophisticated mis-translations ("an American in Ukraine is so flaccid to recognise") - Alex and Jonathan record their impressions as they search for the lost shtetl of Trachmbord. At the heart of Foer's literary fireworks, however, is a devastating finale that puts his best jokes in the shade.

A Party in San Niccolo by Christobel Kent (Penguin, £6.99, 416pp)

Florence, rather than Venice, assumes the role of Creepy Italian City in a Dibdin-esque murder mystery. Gina Donovan, the well-drawn central character, is a semi-depressed mother of three young children who decides to take a mini-break to the city. Within hours, she gets involved with a silver-bobbed English resident, who invites her to a 75th birthday party - highlight of the expat calendar. Then a girl's body is found hanging between rocks by Siena's S223 road. Kent manipulates her transplanted inglesi and loquacious locali with unfussy authority.