Paperbacks: Sleep with Me<br/>The Penelopiad<br/>Birthday Stories<br/>A Wedding in December<br/>Jane Austen's Guide to Romance<br/>The War for Muslim Minds<br/>Arts in Society

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The Independent Culture

Sleep with Me, by Joanna Briscoe (BLOOMSBURY £7.99 (306pp))

Marriages usually fall apart after the babies come along. Not so in Briscoe's erotic thriller. Her young protagonists, Richard and Leila, have barely conceived when disaster strikes. Richard is a books editor on a national broadsheet, Leila an attractive academic. They share a flat in Bloomsbury and spend their time socialising with friends from the "minor smug-arse" world of literary London. It's over Christmas drinks that they befriend the agent of their downfall, a mousy French woman called Sylvie Lavigne. Not long after the party, Leila discovers she's pregnant. Richard isn't ready for fatherhood, and finds himself irritated by Leila's "Madonna of the Rocks" composure. Ready to step into the breach is new friend Sylvie. A frequent visitor to the flat, she excites Richard with her "little blow job of a mouth", while lulling Leila with her extensive knowledge of epidurals and John Lewis prams. With Richard as the main narrative voice, Briscoe deftly charts the first easy steps towards sexual betrayal. What starts out as a diverting story of metropolitan angst soon develops into something altogether more pervy. Flashbacks to a long-ago French exchange - and recovered memories of child-on-child sex - start to explain Sylvie's presence in their lives. The Fatal Attraction style finale is inspired. EH

The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood (CANONGATE £7.99 (198pp))

So much of Ancient Greek literature is taken up with nautical terminology. Margaret Atwood's feminist version of Homer's Odyssey by-passes all that messing around in boats for the really interesting story about marital discord back home in Ithaca. On Odysseus's return, the long-suffering Penelope takes her island-hopping husband to task for hanging her 12 faithful maids - girls who comforted her in his absence, and diverted her would-be suitors. Schoolgirls have always found the hanging of the maids a mystery. Atwood's dry and humorous riposte reexamines this archaic puzzle. EH

Birthday Stories, by Haruki Murakami (VINTAGE £7.99 (207pp))

Anyone with a bad birthday story to tell will feel in good company when reading Haruki Murakami's anthology on the subject. Originally collected with a Japanese audience in mind, his selections are relentlessly gloomy. Not that we should be surprised. According to Murakami, most writers who hear the word "birthday" are going to think ,"Let me give them an unhappy birthday". Tales of sad birthday cakes and forgotten old ladies are trumped by Andrea Lea and Paul Theroux's more depraved stories about giving a "lover for a night". What might have been little more than a gimmick is saved by Murakami's spritely thumbnail sketches of his contributors. EH

A Wedding in December, by Anita Shreve (ABACUS £6.99 (328pp))

Echoes of The Big Chill are never far away from Anita Shreve's latest novel, in which a group of schoolmates reassemble to celebrate a mid-life wedding. Hostessing the party is Nora, recent widow and owner of a stylish inn in rural Massachusetts. Over linen sheets and espressos the long-lost friends rehash their prep-school days before spilling more recent secrets. No one has made it past 40 without getting their fingers burnt. The bride herself - finally free to marry her high-school sweetheart - has been diagnosed with cancer. A winning slice of emotional porn. EH

Jane Austen's Guide to Romance, by Lauren Henderson (HEADLINE £6.99 (309pp))

Jane Austen died a spinster at 42, but that didn't stop Lauren Henderson from writing a guide to romance based on the wit and wisdom of her novels. Triggered by a taste of the New York dating scene - infinitely more complex than its Regency equivalent - it takes ten principles, culled from her novels, and applies them to situations she has experienced or observed. You might want to draw the line at working out "which Jane Austen character is the man you like", but there's plenty on the cauchemars of courtship in an age of commitment-phobia. CP

The War for Muslim Minds, by Gilles Keppel (HARVARD £10.95 (327pp))

Although not flawless (it's stronger on France than Britain, and not updated since 2004), this study of the roots and branches of modern jihad remains outstanding. Keppel knows, and shows, the sources of Islamist militancy, from Palestine to Washington, and delves deep into an often-hidden world of preaching and fighting. Above all, he separates and clarifies, explaining how the drive for jihad has raised the spectre of fitna - of fatal divisions within Islam. BT

Arts in Society, ed Paul Barker (FIVE LEAVES £9.99 (314pp))

First published in 1977, this path-breaking collection of essays on modern culture from New Society magazine retains all its vigour and verve. Angela Carter writes on Sixties style, and on D H Lawrence; John Berger on Pop Art and Bacon; Dennis Potter on TV drama; Michael Wood on Dylan and Kubrick... These pieces set the gold standard for hip but heretical cultural coverage. The sheer quality of writing, and of thinking, keeps them fresh. BT

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