Paperbacks: Mourning Ruby<br></br>Gilgamesh<br></br>Elizabeth<br></br>The Advocate<br></br>Landing Light<br></br>Gulag<br></br>Not on the Label

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The Independent Culture

Mourning Ruby by Helen Dunmore (PENGUIN £7.99 (310pp))

Helen Dunmore's version of love is a very female one: a romantic vision of handsome husbands and gurgling babies. Her novels, however, like to remind us just how fragile domestic happiness can be. Her last one, The Siege, recreated the suffering of those who lived through the siege of Leningrad. Here she addresses a more personal tragedy: the story of a mother's breakdown following the death of a child. The novel's heroine, Rebecca, has grown up with the idea of loss. Left in a shoebox in the backyard of an Italian restaurant, she's brought up by an indifferent foster mother. As an adult she finds security in a three-sided relationship with flat-mate, Joe (a writer), and his best friend, Adam. Eventually married to Adam, she settles down to motherhood and suburban bliss: a world blown apart when their only child, Ruby, is killed in a road accident. The emotion churned up by a child's death is enough to carry any novel, but Dunmore loads on the misery. Like a game of pass the parcel, layer upon layer of story is revealed: including an excerpt from Joe's novel describing a wartime love affair between a French prostitute and an English airman. A fluent and insightful storyteller, Dunmore can carry the strain, but what we really want to know is whether Rebecca and Adam will make it back home. EH

Gilgamesh by Joan London (ATLANTIC £7.99 (256pp))

Taking a baby on the Orient Express before the days of disposable nappies is one of the many challenges faced by Edith, the heroine of London's spirited debut novel. Brought up on a rickety farmstead in south-western Australia, Edith finds her life transformed by a visit from her exotic cousin, Leopold, and his Armenian friend, Aram. By the end of their stay Edith is pregnant. Ignoring warnings about the outbreak of war, she sets off to Armenia. London peoples her European checkpoints with black market racketeers and threadbare bohemians. Sadly, Edith's adventure is wrapped up a little too soon. EH

Elizabeth by Claire Gervat (ARROW £7.99 (306pp))

As we know from a spate of recent biographies, 18th-century girls were a feisty lot. Elizabeth Chudleigh was more risk-taking than most. Born into impoverished gentility (she was rumoured to have roamed Dartmoor like a savage), she snaffled a top-drawer husband, the handsome Duke of Kingston. After the duke's death in 1773, it was revealed that Elizabeth was, in fact, a bigamist - previously married to a young naval lieutenant. Gervat paints an enthralling portrait of a woman who seemed to have truly loved her husband, and was happy to cock a snook at her more vociferous detractors. A heroine in the Daphne du Maurier mode. EH

The Advocate by Marcello Fois (VINTAGE £6.99 (118pp))

The crime writer Marcello Fois has written a string of policiers set in his native Sardinia. The Advocate is the first English translation of the first book in the series, and introduces Fois's central character, the lawyer Bustiani. The novel opens in 1898, just as Sardinia is becoming part of the kingdom of Italy. Relations with the mainland officials are not good. Against this contentious background, a young shepherd is accused of sheep rustling and murder. More compelling than the crime is the author's evocation of life on the impoverished island, and Bustiani's passionate relationship with his pastoral roots. EH

Landing Light by Don Paterson (FABER £8.99 (84pp))

Paterson's Whitbread-winning Landing Light was widely hailed as the poetry collection of the year. It's not hard to see why. Here, once again, are the trademark unreliable narrators, the intellectual labyrinths and the mythic references as metaphors for life, sex and death. But there's a new delicacy in the extraordinary fusion of postmodern playfulness and the elusive quest for the transcendent. Almost uniquely, Paterson combines ferocious intelligence with a lyric gift of astonishing subtlety. Who else can bring the same unflinching gaze to Dante, oral sex and fatherhood? "I kissed your mouth and pledged myself forever." Read it and gasp. CP

Gulag by Anne Applebaum (PENGUIN £8.99 (610pp))

This masterly and harrowing history of Stalin's prison empire concentrates on individuals, not statistics. Even so, Applebaum does cite a figure for deaths in Soviet camps from 1929 to 1953: 2,749,163, while 18 million passed through the system. Gulag makes the dead speak, tracing one victim after another as the terror machine pulls them into the long nightmare of loss, labour and lonely death. Once, you would have thrust this epic work on naive parlour Bolsheviks. Now, Russia's own rulers forget the litany of Soviet horror. BT

Not on the Label by Felicity Lawrence (PENGUIN £7.99 (272pp))

From chickens in Devon to salad in Spain and beans in Kenya, Felicity Lawrence blends sleuthing and science with an appetite-killing flair. Her exposé of the costs of our year-round food cornucopia leaves no packet unscanned, and very few un-damned. She knows how hard it is to shun giant supermarkets, and goes easy on guilt-trips. Instead, we share the tough lives of producers. When a coffee-grower in Uganda is told the high-street price of a cup of the arabica he sells for a song, "his eyes fill with tears". So should ours. BT