Paperbacks: The Affair of the Poisons<br/>The Last Juror<br/>Voyage to the End of the Room<br/>The Great Divorce<br/>The Shops<br/>Athens<br/>Raw Spirit

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The Independent Culture

The scandalous lives of England's 18th-century duchesses have provided plenty of risqué material for a spate of recent biographies, but 17th-century France provides richer pickings still.

The Affair of the Poisons by Anne Somerset (PHOENIX £8.99 (464pp))

The scandalous lives of England's 18th-century duchesses have provided plenty of risqué material for a spate of recent biographies, but 17th-century France provides richer pickings still. The affair of the poisons was one of the most thrilling scandals to ever grip a French court. In 1679, two leading Parisian fortune tellers, Mme Vigoreux and Mme Bosse, were charged with supplying poison to titled women who wanted to do away with their husbands. The arrests triggered a witch hunt that dominated court life for the next three years: 34 poisoners and fortune-tellers were executed. However, as the historian Anne Somerset points out, the affair was more than just about discontented wives and arsenic-laced under-garments. The "mood for poisoning" had its roots in the mirrored hothouse of Versailles. For the French elite, collected together under one roof, the quickest route for advancement was intrigue and murder. An early suspect was the King's mistress, Mme de Montespan, accused of procuring love potions from the witch, "La Voisin". In the heat of scandal, the Sun King took refuge in the arms of the deeply religious Mme De Maintenon. Somerset's narrative grip on this huge cast of beribboned miscreants is impressive. EH

The Last Juror by John Grisham (CENTURY £11.99 (355pp))

John Grisham has published 17 novels and sold 100 million books but shows no sign of authorial laziness. His latest narrator, Willie Traynor, is a fresh-faced innocent. A college drop-out who buys up a failing Mississippi newspaper, he makes his first big splash with the story of the rape and murder of an attractive single mother. His coverage alienates the local redneck population, but wins the black vote. This is the 1970s and desegregation is coming to the South. Traynor is on the side of the angels. Grisham is best read every five years: his seasoned mix of advocacy, storytelling and sentiment never fails to work. EH

Voyage to the End of the Room by Tibor Fischer (VINTAGE £6.99 (251pp))

The hardback cover of Fischer's latest novel featured a bare-legged woman slung backwards over the railings of a city balcony. In the paperback version, it has been replaced by a free-falling Fresian cow. The headless figure turns out to be the book's narrator, Oceane, an exotic dancer-turned-computer graphics designer. Her Zen-like existence in a plush south-London flat is eventually rocked when she starts receiving letters from a long-dead ex. Fischer's madcap adventure licks every human quandary and experience into shape - from live sex shows to the housekeeping ethics of Blackpool hoteliers. EH

The Great Divorce by Valerie Martin (PHOENIX £6.99 (352pp))

Before she out-smarted Donna Tartt and Zadie Smith for last year's Orange Prize, Valerie Martin wasn't much known outside the States. First published 10 years ago, her early novel, The Great Divorce, examines life in captivity for the house-trained female. Set in New Orleans, it follows the lives of three dissatisfied women: Ellen, a vet at the city zoo, whose marriage is on the rocks; her colleague, Camille, a fantasist with a thing for big felines; and Elisabeth, "The Cat Woman of St Francisville", hanged in 1845 for murdering her husband. Martin's eye-scratching denouement is satisfyingly moralistic. EH

The Shops by India Knight (PENGUIN £6.99 (214pp))

"Please don't misinterpret this book as some sort of creepy guide to gracious living", pleads the author of this mildly amusing, mildly charming, "essential guide-cum-memoir". But with tips on "how to get your brows done and why you should", it's hard not to feel that what we're being offered is India Knight's Life on a Plate - or at least her lifestyle. If she doesn't aim quite at an Alain de Botton-type meditation on shopping as existential quest, she does offer a range of musings on shopping as pursuit, or recreation, of happiness. Knight is good on "big fat dinners" and "pants of steel" to wear under posh frocks. It's all culled from a lifetime's gruelling research. CP

Athens by Michael Llewellyn Smith (SIGNAL £12 (257pp))

Among a large pack of guides -cum-histories released for the Olympics, this should take the gold. It's part of Signal's fine 'Cities of the Imagination' series, and repeats the winning blend of insider's nous, elegant prose and easy erudition. Llewellyn Smith served as UK ambassador in Athens, and has loved the city for 40 years. He offers no dry inventory of monuments but witty, vivid views of a capital that visitors can often find (like its ancient heritage) too fragmentary. More enjoyable than most of the sport we'll see. BT

Raw Spirit by Iain Banks (ARROW £7.99 (366pp))

The climax of Banks's erratic quest across Scotland "in search of the perfect dram"? A 21-year-old Glenfiddich Gran Reserva. But it's the journey that matters: a diffuse, laddish, jaunt with his mates across Highlands and Islands, from distillery to distillery, taking in pop, (radical) politics, cars, Scottish identity and snatches of family memoir along the whisky-fuelled way. Typical Banks: under-edited, often self-indulgent, yet studded with bracing shots of pure insight and eloquence. And he's sound on the Scotch as well. BT

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