Paperbacks: Sky High<br></br>The Seal Wife<br></br>Life of Pi<br></br>Calcutta<br></br>Paradise Fields

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The Independent Culture

Sky High by Helen Falconer (Faber & Faber, £12, 236pp)

Helen Falconer's first novel was set in Primrose Hill; her second moves a few postcodes towards Kilburn and Camden Town. Like Zadie Smith's London, hers is a familiar place of "filthy" rain, crumbling Victorian terraces and bleak estates. Even the characters - Jason Peckham and Tower-block Spice - carry the city's imprint in their names. An authentic slice of urban realism, Sky High revolves around the complicated social life of a beautiful teenage boy. At 16, Ferdia has an unusual list of problems. His father has run off with a teen pin-up. His depressed mother is sleeping with a tearaway half her age, and the school's new English teacher, a serious blonde called Cassandra, takes a surprising interest in his welfare. The voice of moral rectitude in this dizzying universe is Ferdia's best mate, Matt - a proletarian singer-songwriter who trogs around Kentish Town in torn combats and a permanent bad mood. As in her previous novel, Falconer concentrates on the young and less well-off. She writes convincingly about both sexes, and the dialogue is sharp and unshow-offy - somewhere between Irvine Welsh and the grittier ChickLit. There isn't much of a plot, but a gentle progression towards happier times. Matt invents a music called "tower block rock" (for "people who can't afford a fucking garage"), and Ferdia's encounters with Cassandra turn into a real-live love affair. High on music and romance, Ferdia and friends know how to appreciate the inner city's secret beauty. Tower blocks, like penthouses, get great sunsets.

The Seal Wife by Kathryn Harrison (Fourth Estate, £6.99, 224pp)

No stranger to controversy, Kathryn Harrison has written a much lauded memoir, The Kiss, about her abused childhood, and the bestselling novel The Binding Chair. Her latest novel, set in turn-of-the-20th-century Alaska, is a coolly seductive account of a relationship between a 26-year-old sent by Washington to monitor the weather and a mute Inuit woman. Harrison tells the story from the young man's point of view, which gives her tale of displaced eroticism (Westerner meets mute "native" girl) an intriguingly non-judgemental edge. The only foreplay involved is a spot of rabbit-skinning.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Canongate, £7.99, 319pp)

For an author who mistrusts exoticism and finds "weirdness fatiguing", the 2002 Man Booker winner sails close to the edge. Yet, miraculously, his novel about a Hindu-Christian-Muslim boy who spends a year on a lifeboat in the Pacific in the company of a hyena, a zebra, a female orang-utan and a Bengal tiger packs in more excitement and high-seas thrills than your average pedagogic fable. The animals don't speak, but the 16-year-old does, in what turns out to be an invigorating sea-bound seminar on zoology, belief and the meaning of evil. Martel may not restore your faith in God, man or beast, but he might in magic realism.

Calcutta by Krishna Dutta (Signal Books, £12, 255pp)

Signal's "cities of the Imagination" series is an unsung glory of smart travel publishing. These stylish, readable cultural guides (from Oxford to Havana) elegantly fill the gap between history and handbook. With Calcutta (or Kolkata, since 2001), Krishna Dutta splendidly overturns Western clichés of mass poverty and Mother Teresa. Over 300 years, the seething Bengali metropolis has also acted as a focus for bold, eclectic art and literature, expressed in the past century by figures such as Tagore, Ray and Anita Desai (who contributes the preface). From politics to poetry, cricket to cinema, Dutta delivers a fine account of her native city.

Paradise Fields by Katie Fforde (Century, £9.99, 357pp)

In a witty and generous romance to fan the hopes of any middle-aged girl's heart, Katie Fforde is on sparkling form. Her ninth novel is the story of a well-meaning mother, Nel, who after ten years of celibate widowhood finds herself much in demand in Cotswolds high society. The catalyst to romance is her involvement in a campaign to save a local beauty spot, Paradise Fields, from the hands of unscrupulous developers. Slobbery dogs and comfy sofas provide the misleadingly innocent backdrop to some surprisingly risqué encounters with the London-based opposition. Jilly Cooper for the grown-ups.

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