Paperbacks: Notes on a Scandal<br></br>Beasts<br></br>Indian Summer<br></br>Seven Tales of Sex and Death<br></br>Then Again<br></br>The Mughul Throne<br></br>Welcome to Paradise

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The Independent Culture

Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller (PENGUIN £6.99 (244pp))

Zoë Heller's fictional debut, Everything You Know (1999), was a mature and worldly novel about a father-daughter relationship. Notes on a Scandal - an even more polished affair - once again concerns the emotional history of a destructive twosome. Bathsheba Hart, the novel's central character, is as prettily tousled as her name suggests. Teaching pottery at a large comprehensive, she's envied by the staff for her floaty clothes and leafy Highgate home. A failure in the classroom (she has "class control issues"), she finds herself responding to the overtures of Steven Connolly, a 15-year-old art student. Before the term is out, she's succumbed to his pubescent charms, and is enjoying al fresco encounters on Hampstead Heath. The novel's self-appointed narrator, fellow teacher Barbara Covett, is a middle-aged loner. Fascinated by Sheba's bourgeois life-style - her outsized furniture, sloppy housekeeping and plummy husband - she sees her colleague's unfolding tragedy as her final last chance to get close to her new best friend.

Sharing all the character flaws of a Patricia Highsmith misfit, sensibly-shod Barbara is at once self-aware and socially obtuse. Her first-person account of Sheba's downfall is a delicious catalogue of intimate secrets and caustic asides. An addictive and intelligent page-turner about class, sex and obsessive love. EH

Beasts by Joyce Carol Oates (ORION £5.99 (138pp))

In between literary tomes, Joyce Carol Oates has also penned several novellas. Her most memorable, Black Water, was a reworking of the Chappaquidick affair. Her latest, Beasts, also explores what happens when young women collude with their sexual predators. The year is 1975, and a group of New England college girls are under the spell of an anti-establishment poetry professor, André Harrow. Over red wine and cassoulet, off-campus naughtiness soon ensues, in a tautly told tale of sophomoric virgins and cloven-footed mentors. As ever, Oates has something interesting to say about female identity. EH

Indian Summer by Will Randall (ABACUS £7.99 (242pp))

Travel writers like a good anecdote, and Will Randall's are more peculiar than most. While accompanying a school party on a trip to a London art gallery, Randall was approached by an elderly Flemish-speaking woman in a caftan and large sun specs. An unabashed old biddy, she told him he looked unhappy and that he should consider escorting her on a trip to India. Tired of London, tired of himself, our risk-taking narrator took her up on the offer. The bargain was a felicitous one, and once released from "walker" duties, Randall took up teaching in a slum school in Poona. A refreshing read from a travel writer who hates travelling for its own sake. EH

Seven Tales of Sex and Death by Patricia Duncker (PICADOR £7.99 (228pp))

When the novelist Patricia Duncker had sleeping problems, it wasn't warm milk but horror films that saved her life. In homage to the late night "B" movies that sent her to sleep, Duncker's latest stories are inspired by the pervier clichés of American TV. Populated by serial killers, stalkers and rapists, and set in London and the French countryside, these stories feature vengeful female narrators and petits morts of the most literal kind: it's not unusual to find lovers face down and bleeding in the tarte tartin. Horror stories that teeter reassuringly on the edge of farce. EH

Then Again by Irma Kurtz (FOURTH ESTATE £7.99 (360pp))

"It's a girl," wrote Irma Kurtz's mother to her mother, in a letter that Kurtz still possesses. "Drat it!" This wise and witty memoir is, however, no injured excavation of a damaged childhood, but a literal and metaphorical journey: "travels", as the subtitle puts it, "in search of my younger self". Repeating a journey around Europe she first made as an opinionated American student, she juxtaposes chunks of her youthful journal with wry musings addressed to her younger self. Kurtz writes with clarity, compassion and self-deprecating humour: "You will never, never, not once in your life know how it feels to be entitled to the window seat. CP

The Mughul Throne by Abraham Eraly (PHOENIX £10.99 (555pp))

Fans of Starkey or Schama should now look east with Abraham Eraly. From Babur's rapt glimpse in 1505 of the lands he would conquer, to the last days of the pious warrior Aurungzeb in 1707, the first half-dozen Mughul emperors forged a glorious - but still disputed - ideal of India. A Kerala-born historian, Eraly traces the dynasty's rise and fall with authority and panache, from the golden age of Akbar to the grief of Shah Jahan that the Taj Mahal set in ageless marble. This edition improves on the hardback with a sumptuous selection of Mughul art. BT

Welcome to Paradise by Mahi Binebine (GRANTA £6.99 (181pp))

Fiction that matters often tells the truth behind the news. In the case of this taut and affecting novel from a Moroccan writer, the news concerns a boatload of illegal migrants, desperately seeking freedom or simply survival through a risky passage to Europe from Tangier. And the truth? Seven individual stories, each told with compassion and zest, and flawlessly translated by Lulu Norman. They add up to a book with the power to shame every glib headline-writer or crass politician. BT