Paperbacks: Skylight Confessions<br/>Sunstroke<br/>Every Move You Make<br/>What Makes Women Happy<br/>Edith Wharton<br/>Estates<br/>In Search of the Blues

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The Independent Culture

Skylight Confessions, By Alice Hoffman (Vintage £7.99)

Alice Hoffman's mystical stories of modern dysfunction may be set in the strip malls of Hartford and New Haven, but behind the scenes a more ancient magic is at work. At 17 years old, Arlyn Singer decides to marry the first man to walk down her street. John Moody, an introspective architecture student, knocks on her door to ask for directions. The two innocents end up married and fighting for breath in a claustrophobic marriage. After the birth of their first child, a vulnerable boy called Sam, Arlyn embarks on an affair with the local window cleaner. Part of the lure of a Hoffman novel is the promise of tragedy, and here it arrives in spades. Arlyn dies shortly after giving birth to a second child, Blanca. Both children grow up troubled: Sam turns to drugs, Blanca to fairy tales. Meanwhile Moody senior becomes convinced that he's being haunted by a ghost in the boxwood hedge. Taking a leaf out of genre writing, Hoffmann bathes backwoods Connecticut in a transcendental glow. Hyper-real happenings take the place of plot development, and folksy aphorisms embroider the text with the regularity of scatter cushions. Puritans may balk at this quick-fix spirituality, but fans won't be disappointed in a novel that sees the author, 30 years on from her debut, still up to her old tricks. EH

Sunstroke, By Tessa Hadley (Vintage £7.99)

Tessa Hadley's debut volume of short stories may be less polished than Helen Simpson's collections, but there is something more subversive and alluring about her portraits of motherhood and friendship. As in her best-known novel, Accidents in the Home, her heroines are largely drawn from the artier and rattier edges of the middle classes. These well-read women have enough money to summer in country cottages, but not to escape domestic drud-gery. From the title story, in which a woman kisses her best friend's man in a country lane to "Buckets of Blood" – the story of a messy miscarriage in university digs – Hadley is at pains to tell us how it really is. EH

Every Move You Make, By David Malouf (Vintage £7.99)

Like the work of many notable Australian novelists, David Malouf's fiction is wedded to the land. His latest short-story collection explores the interior lives of men and women cast adrift both at home and in the natural world. An empathetic observer, his best stories capture failed intimacies. In the story "Mrs Porter and the Rock" a finicky middle-aged man, holidaying near Ayers Rock, offers up his elderly mother as a source of "amusing stories" in postcards home. Set in an airy beach house "Every Move You Make", the sexiest entry, unpicks a seemingly doomed relationship between a silent master-builder and his much more metropolitan client. EH

What Makes Women Happy, By Fay Weldon (HarperPerennial £7.99)

So, the original she-devil found God and lost her sense of humour – so the story goes. This collection of memories, instructions and "parables", based on the baffling pretext that being "good" brings happiness, advises women to be nice, pray, fake orgasms and have an eclair, or an affair, but only the one. Weldon is still controversial – but not for the same reasons as at the start of her career – and she can't half write, but is that enough for her to be forgiven by the generation of feminists she inspired? "If you haven't anything nice to say," she advises, "don't say anything at all." OK. KG

Edith Wharton, By Hermione Lee (Vintage £10.99)

It is a brave biographer who decides to tackle a life as full as the American novelist Edith Wharton's. Between 1897 and 1937 she published a book a year, and her best known works – The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome – are still widely read. Born into a wealthy New York family, Wharton, like her confidant, Henry James, was partly raised in Europe. It wasn't until her late thirties that her writing and romantic life grew wings. Wharton once wrote that a woman's life is like "a great house of many rooms... and in the innermost room, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes." Lee tiptoes as close to the inner sanctum as she dares. EH

Estates, By Lynsey Hanley (Granta £7.99)

If there's any justice left in Britain (which Estates gives good reason to doubt) this will be a classic. Hanley's inspired blend of memoir, history and fierce polemic not only charts the downfall of social housing: paradise to hell in 50 years. It is one of the finest books on working-class life since Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy. Funny, frank, tender, she never skimps on details of lousy design and political failure, but above all shows how concrete gulags built "walls in the head". BT

In Search of the Blues, By Marybeth Hamilton (Vintage £8.99)

If the music industry paid its debt to the pre-war blues, ugly Southern towns would be paved with gold. Yet between the worlds of Son House and Led Zeppelin lies a human bridge of white folklorists, scholars and buffs. Learned but lyrical, this gem of a book tells the stories of the blues-crazy go-betweens, from the Oedipal rivalry of John and Alan Lomax to the taste-maker James McKune, as much of a lost soul as any of his devil-haunted idols. BT

Pick of the picture books

Visit Thakurbari, the Tagore clan's home-cum-shrine amid the bustle of Kolkata, and its artworks tell a vital story about how Indian artists forged their own style under the Raj. Often, their struggle to be heard and seen involved not a backward-looking, folkloric art but an engagement with 20th-century breakthroughs that led to a heady mix of Asian and European forms. Partha Mitter's lucid and well-illustrated The Triumph of Modernism (Reaktion, £22.50) explores Indian artists' encounter with the avant-garde from 1922 to 1947. It gives due prominence to pioneers: above all, Amrita Sher-Gil, the Sikh-Hungarian prodigy and firebrand who once had a sizzling affair with (of all people) Malcolm Muggeridge. Right: Sher-Gil's 'The Brahmachari' (1937)

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