Paperbacks: Reader, I Married Him<br/>Ursula, Under<br/>Thinking Hands<br/>Fat Is a Feminist Issue<br/>England's Lost Eden<br/>A Rope of Sand<br/>Innocence

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The Independent Culture

Reader, I Married Him, by Michèle Roberts (VIRAGO £6.99 (229pp))

Michèle Roberts is a writer known for her appreciation of the good life. In her latest novel, a madcap continental farce, she replaces detox and diet with second helpings of everything - especially apricot brioche and sex. The novel's 50-year-old narrator, Aurora, is in the middle of an identity crisis. Widowed three times, she's used to lifestyle makeovers. "With Tom I'd been a hippie who smoked dope...With Cecil I'd been an elegant and gracious hostess giving art historical dinner parties. With Hugh, I'd been a walker, camper, devotee of folk songs and real ale. But now? Alone, I could be anything." Following the funeral of husband number three, Aurora decides to holiday in Italy with friend Leonora, a former Maoist revolutionary turned nun. Within hours of her arrival in Padenza, Aurora becomes embroiled in a plot to undermine her friend's arch-enemy, a reforming local bishop, and his army of polyester-clad groupies. Sparkian absurdities fly as Aurora's ecclesiastical mini-break turns into something more akin to sex tourism. Having successfully de-frocked a priest during a hotel siesta, Aurora then becomes the inamorata of the local museum curator, seduced by prosciutto and poetry. In this lightest of comedies, Roberts fires her parting shots with customary sprezzatura. EH

Ursula, Under, by Ingrid Hill (VINTAGE £6.99 (476pp))

The first-time novelist Ingrid Hill raises the fusion-fiction stakes with a Sino-Finnish-American saga that not only crosses continents but centuries. At the heart of the novel lies the fate of two-year old Ursula Wong - a toddler who accidentally tumbles down a mineshaft in rural Michigan. Less interesting to Hill than the story of the girl's rescue, is the unique package of DNA that might disappear with her. A stirring saga traces Ursula's mitrochondrial inheritance back to 9th-century Samarkand and even the Swedish court of Gustavus Adolphus. The result is biological determinism at its most fertile. EH

Thinking Hands, by Phil Katz (HETHERINGTON PRESS £10 (288pp))

New years mean new plans, and those plans for many will mean an escape from the consumer grind. Any would-be utopian downshifter should seek out this engaging and inspiring study of Victorian superman William Morris, and his heroic campaigns to create the conditions for "useful work" rather than "useless toil". In a valuable adjunct to Fiona MacCarthy's great biography, Phil Katz works hard to rescue Morris the Marxian revolutionary from the wallpaper buffs, although he takes care to show how central were honest craft and design to his vision of the post-capitalist good life. Fine illustrations, but the next edition should pay its dues with proper notes. BT

Fat Is a Feminist Issue, by Susie Orbach (ARROW £7.99 (382pp))

Nearly 30 years after its original publication, and at a time when "a $40 billion diet industry makes itself fat... on pain and misery", Susie Orbach's pioneering work is, sadly, more searingly relevant than ever. If much of her approach - fat as defence from the world, food as emotional need etc - now feels like orthodoxy, it's largely because of Orbach and her ilk. Her pungent psychoanalytic insights and plain good sense ensure that this is still the sharpest, and best, bible for the food junkie. "All diets" she says "work on the principle that food is dangerous". Hooray! CP

England's Lost Eden, by Philip Hoare (HARPERPERENNIAL £8.99 (548pp))

Beneath the strait-laced surface of Victorian life seethed a host of apocalyptic sects - none stranger than the New Forest "Shakers" whom Philip Hoare returns to life in this remarkable book. Led by a country prophetess straight out of Hardy, Mary Ann Girling, they created a sensation in the 1870s and 1880s, acting as a magnet for the era's eccentric seekers and "new age" intellectuals - above all, John Ruskin. Vividly evocative, and suffused with an acute, near-visionary sense of time, place and landscape, Hoare's portrait of a lost age brings the eerie shade of Sebald down to the Hampshire woods. BT

A Rope of Sand, by Elsie Donald (BLACK SWAN £6.99 (302pp))

According to Kate, this novel's tight-lipped narrator, suffering isn't all it's cooked up to be. What doesn't kill you, she says, will probably scar you very badly indeed. After a chance encounter, middle-aged Kate is forced to look back to the 1950s, and a trip to Europe spent in the company of Rockefeller scions Olivia and Hugo. Rome and finally Luxor prove suitably sinister backdrops to an ultimately tragic tale of sophomoric lust and snobbery. EH

Innocence, by Kathleen Tessaro (HARPERCOLLINS £6.99 (439pp))

Following the death of a close friend, single mother Evie finds herself taking stock of her life. Now living hand-to-mouth in a shared house in Camden, this transplanted American once had hopes of a glittering stage career. With the help of the deceased Robbie, she pieces together memories of student life and her addiction to cheap wine and dodgy men. An evocative coming-of-age story segues straight into the regrets of middle-age, with agreeably eccentric results. EH

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