Paperbacks: Italian Fever<br/>The Madness of Love<br/>Between Mountains<br/>The Sunlit Stage<br/>Eurydice Street<br/>Schiller<br/>Live and Learn

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The Independent Culture

Love stories set in Tuscany might be something of a cliché, but they're also very hard to resist.

Italian Fever, by Valerie Martin (PHOENIX £6.99 (245pp))

Love stories set in Tuscany might be something of a cliché, but they're also very hard to resist. Following on from her Orange-Prize winning novel, Property, detailing life on a slave plantation, Valerie Martin's Italian romance is an altogether sunnier affair. The novel's sensible heroine, New Yorker Lucy Stark, works as an editor to a bestselling but untalented author. "DV" writes books about "big, strong men with large appetites" and suffers all the creative agonies of a writer ten times as good. After a fatal accident in Italy - he falls into a septic tank - Lucy flies out to retrieve his unfinished manuscript and settle his estate. Met at the airport by Massimo, a handsome and moody Italian, she finds herself surrendering to the "foreign universe of desire". A plain woman who has long accepted her non-erotic fate, Lucy responds to Massimo's advances while always knowing she will return to Brooklyn a single woman. Intertwined with the embraces and art-history lessons is the unsolved mystery surrounding DV's death. Alerted to the possibility of skulduggery by DV's forbiddingly aristocratic neighbours, Lucy goes to a shadier place than she ever intended. In this waspishly observed novel, Martin unpicks the truth about the world's Massimos. E M Foster and Henry James would approve of her denouement. EH

The Madness of Love, by Katharine Davies (VINTAGE £6.99 (293pp))

Winner of this year's Romantic Novel of the Year award, Katharine Davies's idiosyncratic debut treads a fine line between high passion and laugh-out-loud camp. Inspired by Twelfth Night, the plot revolves around romantic misunderstandings in a Welsh village. Leo Spring, the ringleted lord of the manor, falls in love with schoolteacher Melody, while his gardener, Valentina, has the hots for her love-sick employer. Despite the novel's contemporary setting, it's hard not to picture the characters in period dress. A novel of sensuous prose, sodden landscapes and loopy couplings. EH

Between Mountains, by Maggie Helwig (VINTAGE £7.99 (316pp))

The tortured lovers of Maggie Helwig's modern war story inhabit a fragmented and unfamiliar Europe. Daniel is a Canadian stringer who's stayed on in Bosnia to interview Markovic, an accused war criminal. His girlfriend Lili, a Serbian-Albanian, works for the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Both carry around images of wartime atrocities they'd prefer to forget. Forbidden to fraternise with journalists, Lili risks her career for their illicit relationship. An entertaining Euro-drama that revives a very recent slice of history. The author's own work as a human rights advocate lends the novel extra clout. EH

The Sunlit Stage, by Simonetta Wenkert (BLOOMSBURY £7.99 (309pp))

Wenkert's debut novel opens with an unlikely love affair between a shy English girl, studying in Rome, and an Italian terrorist. The couple meet in Rome in 1979, a period of high-level kidnappings and political activism. Ennio falls in love with Julia, but on becoming a "clandestino", renounces all ties with "outsiders". Julia dies during a raid on a terrorist cell while giving birth to their child. Twenty years on, their daughter, Lotte, unaware of her origins, returns to Italy to learn about her parents' past. Wenkert marries the personal and political in a family saga which is also an explosive portrait of post-Fascist Italy. EH

Eurydice Street, by Sofka Zinovieff (GRANTA £7.99 (276pp))

Brit starts new life in the Med and casts a wry eye on the funny ways of foreigners. It's a formula to make the heart sink, but one that doesn't quite fit this account of a year in Athens. For starters, Sofka Zinovieff is married to an expatriate Greek, who's going home. There is, therefore, already a seething mass of friends and family, all poised to help oil the wheels of Athenian life. An anthropologist whose PhD was on Greek Don Juans, Zinovieff brings an affectionate and witty eye to the idiosyncracies - universal smoking, evil eyes, massive midnight dinners - of Greek life. She seems remarkably keen, in this engaging cameo of a country, to adopt some of them, too. CP

Schiller, by Claudia Pilling et al (HAUS £9.99 (161pp))

The West End triumph of Don Carlos ought to lend some British limelight to the divided genius who wrote it. This brief life, rich in images and quotes, does its job well. It shows Schiller (1759-1805) as a young medic battling with the German courts, their eccentric rulers, and his own indecision. He sought a secure berth to exercise his literary abilities as - what exactly? Playwright, poet, editor, historian, all-round guru: the creator of the Marquis of Posa, Mary Stuart and Wallenstein gave voices and shapes to all the mixed-up hopes of revolutionary Europe. BT

Live and Learn, by Joan Didion (HARPERPERENNIAL £9.99 (575pp))

Three decades; three books; one captivating voice in a single bumper volume. Live and Learn collects a trio of Didion's famous works of reportage: Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album and After Henry. Although California is her home turf, from Janis Joplin to Ronald Reagan, her prose - inward-looking yet socially acute - takes a whole nation's temperature. It all builds into an epic, intimate, journey across the troubled American mind. BT

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