Paperbacks: Pillion Riders<br/>The Seducer<br/>Beatrice<br/>The Friendly Young Ladies<br/>Pablo Neruda<br/>Outside In<br/>America's Musical Life

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The Independent Culture

Pillion Riders, by Elisabeth Russell Taylor (VIRAGO £7.99 (173pp))

Fifties Paris has always held a strong fascination for writers and novelists. Elisabeth Russell Taylor's recently re-issued classic captures the city at the height of its post-war charm. Opal, the novel's young narrator, is an enigmatic heroine. Married off by her father to one of his elderly business associates, she lives a life of stolid luxury in a flat overlooking Hyde Park. Accompanying her husband on a trip to Paris, she finally finds what she's been looking for - a tortured young composer called Jean-Claude, who introduces her to the pleasures and anxieties of sexual love. Escaping her Anita Brookner-style destiny, Opal seizes the day, and, dressed in a Hardy Amies suit, abandons married life in London for a new existence with Jean-Claude. Once installed in his insalubrious quartier, she devotes herself to sexual adventuring and domestic chores. Like Elizabeth David - only sluttier - she learns how to cook pot au feu, and shop for cheese and cherries at the local market. Life turns unexpectedly sour when she starts to question Jean-Claude about his friendship with his wealthy patron, Otto von Kramitz. An elegant and masterly novelette brimming with shrewdly drawn characters and evocative Parisian mise-en-scènes. EH

The Seducer, by Jan Kjaerstad (ARCADIA £8.99 (606pp))

This first in a trilogy of novels by the Norwegian literary hotshot Jan Kjaerstad recounts the mixed history of middle-aged TV documentary maker, Jonas Wergeland. A man at the top of his game, Jonas is no less envied for his professional achievements than his success with women. One day he returns from work to find that his wife has been murdered. What follows is a quest to find the killer, but also a post-mortem of Jonas's life to date. Although an irritating read if you are not a fan of post-modernist games, this is a novel that gets close to solving the question of "when do we become the person we are". EH

Beatrice, by Noelle Harrison (PAN £6.99 (308pp))

Noelle Harrison's debut novel puts Edna O'Brien in the shade with a satisfyingly tragic saga of unwanted pregnancies and miserable marriages. Beatrice is the illegitimate child of Sarah, a woman persuaded to marry a labourer from County Meath, after her aristocratic lover rejects her in her hour of need. Twenty years on, Beatrice adds to her mother's woes by disappearing into the bogland nearby. It's left to artistic sibling Eithne to piece together the mystery of her disappearance. Harrison's detective story may sink into melodrama, but her lush descriptions of the Irish landscape remain memorably fresh and alive. EH

The Friendly Young Ladies, by Mary Renault (VIRAGO £8.99 (320pp))

Before Mary Renault turned her attention to the Ancients, she broke new ground with a series of contemporary novels featuring gay and lesbian protagonists. The Friendly Young Ladies, first published in 1944, is her most autobiographical. Set on a houseboat on the Thames, it describes a domestic ménage made up of two sisters - Elsie and Leonora - and Leonora's lover, a nurse called Helen. The arrival of Peter enables Renault to hint that sexual tastes aren't always clearcut. This acerbic comedy puts some of Radclyffe Hall's more despairing notions firmly to bed. EH

Pablo Neruda, by Adam Feinstein (BLOOMSBURY £9.99 (512pp))

If writers are famously boring subjects for biography (spending much of their lives at their desks), then Pablo Neruda is an honourable exception. The Nobel laureate, whose love poems have fuelled romances around the world, lived a life of high drama. A massive celebrity in his native Chile, with a penchant for national costume, he adored women, food and clothes, became a fierce proponent of the Spanish Republican cause and escaped his country's repressive regime by fleeing on horseback. Feinstein's meticulously researched and compelling biography is a passionate portrait of a deeply passionate life. CP

Outside In, ed. Deborah Hallford & Edgardo Zaghini (MILET £6.99 (136p))

A gift for the parents of a globe-trotting young reader. This unique (and rather stylish) guide to recent children's books in translation sketches more than 170 titles, and tells you about the writers. Its compilers lament that British kids don't have the chance to read enough non-Anglophone authors, and they're right. Yet they also re-introduce some old favourites, from Dick Bruna to Jostein Gaarder and Astrid Lindgren. BT

America's Musical Life, by Richard Crawford (NORTON £15.99 (976pp))

A stupendous achievement, this 1,000-page history of music in America - from psalms to hip-hop - can be consulted as a wise encyclopedia or simply read as an expert, engaging narrative. Impossible to fault in scope and taste, it arguably gives the past 25 years shorter shrift. Yet it's quite superb on the Sixties. Folk and pop, classical and jazz: Crawford covers every US base, as sound on Chuck Berry as on Sidney Bechet or Leonard Bernstein. BT

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