Paperbacks: Left Bank,
Sex Wars
The Reader
Can't Wait to Get to Heaven
The Prone Gunman
We Brits
The Brain Box/ The Ballot Box

Left Bank, by Kate Muir (HEADLINE REVIEW £6.99 (384pp))

The cinq-à-sept tryst may now take place after lunch (thanks to extra traffic on the Périphérique), but, according to journalist Kate Muir, nothing else has changed in the world of Parisian extra-marital affairs. In this uplifting comedy of manners, Muir exposes the illicit appetites of the haute bourgeoisie, and the pitfalls of the Anglo-French misalliance. Olivier and Madison Malin are regarded as the "Great Mind" and the "Great Body" of the Left Bank. Madison, a Texan model turned art-house actress, is the epitome of Parisian womanhood. Olivier, a dishy "gastrophilosophe", is the author of the best-selling tome Chechnya - Beyond Philosophy. Madison maintains a heated "amitié amoureuse" with a family friend; Olivier has his PR girls. This arrangement might have continued indefinitely but for the arrival of English nanny, Anna Ayer, who finds herself paying more attention to her suave employer than to their child. It's the household's fantastically creepy concierge, Madame Canovas, who clocks the love birds first. Muir's novel bottles the romantic chemistry of Paris, but reveals the French as the rationalists they are. Olivier, with his ready supply of chilled Brouilly, is only interested in the "short narrative". Anna, being English, takes her Belle du Jour moment to heart. EH

Sex Wars, by Marge Piercy (PIATKUS £6.99 (408pp))

Free love and feminism lie at the heart of Marge Piercy's 16th novel - not a novel of Sixties radicalism, but a historical recreation of post-Civil War New York. In this engaging period polemic, Piercy re-imagines the lives of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony (the founders of the American women's rights movement) and Victoria Woodhull, a spiritualist with designs on the presidency. Anti-porn crusader, Anthony Comstock, is the novel's unsympathetic arch-villain. An eye-opening survey of 19th-century sexuality in which Piercy seeks to prove not much in gender politics is new. EH

The Reader, edited by Ali Smith (CONSTABLE £12.99 (470pp))

In the first of a series of literary anthologies chosen by writers, Ali Smith gleefully mixes Jane Austen and Billie Holiday, Simone de Beauvoir and Beryl the Peril; Colette, Calvino and Keats. This genre has a lousy record: think soporific readings on Radio 4. Smith revitalises it, splicing and matching with grace and gusto. She leaps across distinctions of language, culture and "brow" in a mood of boundary-busting boldness. Smith fans may expect the wild girls (Tove Jansson to Angela Carter) and rebel Scots (Alasdair Gray to Jackie Kay), but Larkin, Edward Thomas and WG Sebald also find a place. An eclectic treasure-trove, but also a self-portrait of the artist as a reader. BT

Can't Wait to Get to Heaven, by Fannie Flagg (CHATTO £11.99 (359pp))

Fannie Flagg, author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (also made into a film), has a tried and tested formula for popular middlebrow fiction - sassy storytelling and lashings of super-sweet sentiment. Returning to Elmwood Springs, Missouri, the setting of previous novels, the novel opens with the death of octogenarian Elner Shimfissle. One minute she is picking figs for jam, the next she finds herself negotiating the afterlife, in a novel that gets behind the small-town obituaries and reveals a community spirit that would put Lake Wobegon to shame. EH

The Prone Gunman, by Jean-Patrick Manchette trans James Brook (SERPENT'S TAIL £7.99 (155pp))

In a violent policier devoid of seasonal cheer, French crime-writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, who died in 1995, turns pulp fiction into art. Contract hitman, Martin Terrier, goes about his last assignment with dogged detachment. As soon as the job is done, he plans to retire and reclaim his childhood sweetheart. His bosses have other plans. The story of his professional and personal impotence is related in cool, unforgiving prose. More terrifying than the mounting body count is his final destination: waiting tables in the Ardennes. EH

We Brits, by John Agard (BLOODAXE £7.95 (69pp))

While Britain agonises about its myriad identities and squabbles about multi-culturalism, John Agard continues to produce wry, mischievous, life-affirming poems that reflect and celebrate our hybrid culture. The "British queue", he says, "gives a fair turn to anonymous me and you", while "Our subconscious feeds on a subcontinent's spices/ Even while munching Mr Kipling's almond slices". Playful, arresting and fun. CP

The Brain Box/ The Ballot Box, (OXFORD £25 each)

Out of Oxford's superb stable of "Very Short Introductions" come two thoroughbred gifts. The Brain Box, in a handy case, collects five top-flight scientific VSIs (on Quantum Theory, Consciousness, Cosmology, Intelligence and Evolution). The Ballot Box covers Politics, Capitalism, Democracy, Fascism and Socialism. The authors, from Bernard Crick to Susan Blackmore and John Polkinghorne, are expert; the format convenient; the presentation stylish. Brain someone up this year. BT

To order these books call: 0870 079 8897

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