Paperbacks: Paradise

No Place for a Lady

Either Side of Winter

The Fast Set

The Queen of the South

Dublin

Beyond the Notes

A L Kennedy's fiction is filled with distinctive interior voices. Her characters can make life-altering decisions while queuing at a cheese shop, or fall in and out of love during a walk in the park. In Paradise, she finds the perfect setting: the inside of a Scottish alcoholic's head. At 36, Hannah Luckraft is despairing of a life that hasn't lead to marriage or children. "You are now approaching 40," she says, "and have already spent far too long washing underwear in a theatre, stacking shelves, cleaning rental power tools... Every prior experience proves it - there is no point to you." In order to counteract her sense of uselessness, she turns to drink. Joining her through the "long slim door that lead to somewhere else" is dentist Robert Gardener, a fellow addict who introduces her to Bushmills and an almost uplifting sex life. During the grey time between waking up and opening hours, Hannah remembers her childhood (cosy), her benders (discombobulating) and her miserable one-night stands (men with "wispy" hair feature prominently in these). Kennedy is an original and playful stylist, but as Hannah moves between Scotland and Dublin, London, Montreal and Budapest, it's easy to feel swamped under the pressure of her inventiveness. Yet she is a writer who compels you to stay, just as you are making up excuses to leave. EH

No Place for a Lady by Ann Harries (BLOOMSBURY £10.99 (376pp))

Ann Harries turns to her native South Africa for a no-frills costume drama set during the Boer War. Her cast includes two English nurses, a bluestocking reformer and an Irish soldier, Patrick, whose eyes turn " emerald" at the merest hint of skirt. The novel opens with Patrick, a guard at the leper colony on Robben Island, joining the Mounted Infantry. His romance with English nurse, Sarah, is standard-issue. Better than the love story are the historical recreations, particularly of the British concentration camps. Kitchener and Kipling make cameo appearances. EH

Either Side of Winter by Benjamin Markovits (FABER £10.99 (235pp))

If you like your fiction crammed with psycho-analytical insights, Markovits's second novel will melt you into a little pool of satisfaction. Set against the changing seasons of a familiar Manhattan (Central Park, Zabars), this work brings together the romantic histories of several unlikely couples. His bookish New Yorkers are serially conflicted, even when they get lucky. Schoolteacher Amy Bostick is no exception: "She cried every night after turning the light off, unless Charles Conway was staying over, in which case she didn't feel any happier, but didn't cry." EH

The Fast Set, by Charles Jennings (ABACUS £8.99 (360pp))

The Fast Set, here, turns out to be a trio of record-breaking interwar speed obsessives: Sir Henry Segrave, Sir Malcolm Campbell and John Cobb. Their exploits at the wheels of various overpowered monster cars thrilled a generation and made headline news. In a book that's not all about gearboxes and lap times, Jennings paints entertaining and authoritative portraits of his characters' idiosyncratic personal lives: from the feckless Campbell - the "d'Artagnan of modern days" - to the reclusive Cobb, whose described his own record-breaking triumph as "just a matter of keeping going". EH

The Queen of the South by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (PICADOR £7.99 (626pp))

Like a fierce summer storm at night in the Med (on whose waters much of it takes place), this stylish adventure novel lights up spectacular scenes in bolts of lightning. Teresa Mendoza, a Mexican drug-runner's moll, scraps and schemes to become entrepreneurial chief of the huge, seaborne cannabis trade between Morocco and southern Spain. Relish the canny plotting, the nail-shredding action sequences, the host of salty, pungent characters - and the shrewd grasp of secret links that connect our first-world indulgence to third-world indigence. And save another olé for Andrew Hurley's splendid translation. BT

Dublin by Siobhán Kilfeather (SIGNAL £12 (300pp))

"Cities of the Imagination", Signal's learned but lively series, outperforms other guides for both depth and flair. Yet Kilfeather's artistic and historical tour of Dublin shines even in this company. From Swift to Joyce, Flann O'Brien to U2, Edward Fitzgerald to Mary Robinson, she matches places to people with lightly worn erudition as the former "capital of nostalgia" evolves into the ultra-chic smile on the face of the Celtic Tiger. BT

Beyond the Notes by Susan Tomes (BOYDELL £14.99 (192pp))

This pianist's diary of 20 years touring and recording with her bands (the Domus ensemble and Florestan trio), together with a closing encore of incisive essays, is a delight and a revelation. Tomes, wittily informative about gigs, discs and cash, reminds us of the craft and graft of every performance. She writes with Schubertian intimacy, modesty and grace about "how to make sense of music and of a life in music". BT

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