<preform>Paperbacks: Lanzarote<br>Six<br>The Honey Trap<br>The Mermaid's Purse<br>Giving up the Ghost<br>Gaza Blues<br>Nature Via Nurture</preform>

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The Independent Culture

Once more a slim, bikini-clad figure adorns the cover of the latest offering from enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq.

Lanzarote by Michel Houellebecq (VINTAGE £5.99 (87pp)

Once more a slim, bikini-clad figure adorns the cover of the latest offering from enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq. That the book's objects of desire turn out to be two big German women in dungarees and hiking boots is beside the point. Otherwise known as Pam and Barbara, these two "fat elves" prove rather more alluring when undressed and oiled up on an arid Lanzarote beach. In his previous novel, Platform, Houellebecq reflected on the consequences of "friendly tourism" - the kind in which Westerners travel to developing countries and pay their new poverty-stricken "friends" to have sex. The novel ended in an Islamic massacre of sex tourists in Thailand. Lanzarote, in contrast, doesn't have much to say either about tourism or sex. Part novel, part travel essay, this slim volume describes a last-minute break taken by the author to avoid the gloom of early January. "I don't feel up to fucking," our charming narrator informs his travel agent, before switching from Senegal to the Canaries. Here he hooks up with a depressed Belgian policeman. They drive around the island and back to the beach for some girl-on-girl action with Pam and Babs. Even ruder than the sex is Houellebecq's dissing of the island's Nordic visitors: "Norwegians are translucent; exposed to the sun, they die immediately." EH

Six by Jim Crace (PENGUIN £7.99 (220pp)

"Every woman he dares to sleep with bears him a child." That's one curse Greek mythology didn't come up with. Jim Crace's new novel poses an unusual problem for its main character, Felix Dern. Star of stage and screen, "Lix", as he's known by his lovers, lives in the City of Kisses - a fictitious European city that Crace imagines down to its cosmetics (TobaGo is a breath freshener), exotic foliage and cosmopolitan cafés. This dreamy and lush account of Lix's many couplings and conceptions ponders the biology of desire, and the age-old question of whether children are the price men pay for sex. EH

The Honey Trap by Thea Wolff (BLOOMSBURY £6.99 (213pp))

The conceit of Thea Wolff's funny and vivacious debut is that it's better to catch a partner out before he has an afair, than find out when it's all too late. Issy Brodsky is a single mum in her thirties. Stuck for employment that suits her child-care needs, she joins The Honey Trap - an agency that specialises in apprehending "men on the verge". Her job description: to "test the strength of modern-day marriages." When she should be out investigating the elderly Mr Finklestein, her toddler discovers a severed finger in the garden. A frenetic and intelligent farce that captures the warped mindset of the frazzled mother. EH

The Mermaid's Purse by Katy Gardiner (PENGUIN £6.99 (310pp))

Katy Gardner's campus chiller will appeal to those who like a touch of creepiness, but not too much sleuthing. Cassie Bainbridge, the novel's refreshingly plump narrator, has recently moved to Sussex to take up a lectureship in family history. Having traded in her comfortable north-London home (and lover) for a seaside bedsit, she's beginning to have second thoughts about starting over. Divorced professors pursue her by e-mail, while students stalk her. A cosy psycho-drama conducted over canteen latte and chocolate muffins. The red herrings win the day. EH

Giving up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel (HARPER PERENNIAL £7.99 (252pp))

"I hardly know how to write about myself," says Hilary Mantel at the start of this extraordinary book. "I argue with myself over every word." She needn't have worried. In her agonised attempts to wrest the truth from memory and piece together the fragments of a life dogged by severe ill health, medical incompetence and excruciating physical pain, she has written one of the outstanding memoirs of recent years. Starting with memories of toddler knight-errantry, she moves on to marriage, re-marriage (to the same husband) and the writing life. A model of breathtaking clarity. CP

Gaza Blues by Etgar Keret and Samir el-Youssef DAVID PAUL £8.99 (172pp))

The authors of this collection - an Israeli film and story writer, and a Palestinian raised in a Lebanese refugee camp - proved a surprise sell-out at the Hay festival this week. Their collaboration offers black humour, keen satire and simple humanity in place of the region's usual postures and dogmas. As a fiction anthology, Gaza Blues feels uneven: brief, sassy sketches by Keret give way to El-Youssef's comic novella of intifada. But as a bold experiment in partnership, it merits the warmest applause. BT

Nature Via Nurture by Matt Ridley HARPER PERENNIAL £8.99 (328pp))

Shortlisted for this year's Aventis prize, this incisive book from a fine explainer goes a long way towards squaring the circle of human development. After a century of debate between partisans of heredity and environment, Ridley offers an exit from this dichotomy. New research suggests that genes not only mould, but are moulded by, life-events. His liberating manifesto argues we should view them as "servants of experience", not masters of our fate. BT

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