Paperbacks: The Birth of Venus; <br></br> Encyclopaedia of Snow; <br></br> A Married Woman; <br></br> Jennifer Government; <br></br> Running with Scissors; <br></br> Respect; <br></br> Wrestling with the Angel

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The Independent Culture

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant (VIRAGO £6.99 (412pp))

The mystery writer and cultural commentator Sarah Dunant has written about Florence before. Her 1999 novel Mapping the Edge was a creepy thriller about a single mother who was abducted by a salami-eating psycho. Her new book, also set in Tuscany, takes on a more historical bent. Inspired by the quattrocento, this offbeat tale of religious fanaticism and artistic fervour explores the darker side of the Renaissance's more glittering achievements.

The book's heroine, Alessandra Cecchi, is the daughter of a prosperous cloth merchant, who finds herself boxed in by the patriarchal expectations of her time. A girl of artistic sensibilities, she's confined to her father's palazzo, when she should be mugging up on brush technique. Her coming of age coincides with that of the mad monk, Savanorola. For the Cecchi family this means an end to their lavish life-style, and for Alessandra a hasty marriage to a man seeking protection from Savanorola's crusade against sexual deviants.

Dunant is at her best when writing about sex and the wages of sin, and weaves Alessandra's unusual love life into a convincing portrait of the seamier side of Florentine life. The resulting novel is neither a romance nor a whodunit - the love interest is disappointing - but Dunant throws out ideas about sex, art and the divine with Renaissance-style sprezzatura. EH

Encyclopaedia of Snow by Sarah Emily Miano (PICADOR £6.99 (260pp))

If the idea of a non-linear narrative fills you with exhaustion, it may help to know that Sarah Emily Miano's debut is designed to benefit from the skip- and-jump approach to literature. As its narrator suggests, the novel is an "assemblage of clippings, quotes, photographs, notes, jokes, anecdotes, poems and songs". One moment there's Slyvia Plath on tulips, the next a short story on the serendipitous nature of happiness. The Inuits may have 40 words for snow; Miano suggests that we are no less expressive when it comes to the naming of parts. EH

A Married Woman by Manju Kapur (FABER & FABER £7.99 (307pp))

Set in Nineties Delhi, Manju Kapur's second novel includes all the themes you might expect to find in an old-style feminist novel: escape from an oppressive marriage, Sapphic dalliance and an encounter with a swami in open-toed sandals. Astha, the novel's mostly miserable heroine is a middle-class Hindu woman who finds release from married life in the arms of a bohemian lover. Alternating between Astha's intense love affair and scenes from the domestic front (dreary family holidays to Goa and Disney land are a particular treat), this readable and funny novel gets under the skin of a woman set giddily adrift by the promise of love. EH

Jennifer Government by Max Barry (PENGUIN £8.99 (275pp))

With the advent of iPods and human cloning, dystopian satires have lost some of their futuristic edge. Max Barry's inventive debut conjures up a post-millennial Australia that is partly familiar (people still go to work and chat by the water cooler), and partly the stuff of fantasy. The world is now run by giant conglomerates (Nike, McDonald's and Starbucks), no one pays taxes and staff have taken their companies' names as their own. Jennifer is a government agent on the trail of a rogue Nike executive. An affirming read for those who still believe the world is out to get them. EH

Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs (ATLANTIC £7.99 (304pp))

"My fondness for formal wear can be traced to the womb" says Augusten Burroughs in this crazed but riveting account of his super-extraordinary childhood. As his parents edge towards mutual homicide, he seeks solace in the sharpness of his creases. Life gets even weirder when he's packed off to live with his mother's psychiatrist and his spectacularly dysfunctional family. Misery is the stock-in-trade of memoirs, but here it's the raw material for one of the funniest and strangest I've read. "Sure, I would have liked for things to have been different", he concludes with supreme cool. "But, roll of the eyes, what can you do?" CP

Respect by Richard Sennett (PENGUIN £8.99 (288pp))

As pundits begin to wail that Britain has become "too diverse", Richard Sennett offers a swift return to sanity and solidarity. An admirably clear, bold and humane social theorist, he often gnaws at the question of how different sorts of folk can rub along amicably without sharing much in common. Mutual respect is the key to harmony, and his engrossing patchwork of family memoir, history and philosophy asks why this cost-free commodity often proves so scarce. Gliding between the dynamics of the string quartet and the pitfalls of welfare-to-work policies, Sennett supplies no glib solutions; but plenty of rich food for thought. BT

Wrestling with the Angel by Jean-Paul Kauffmann (VINTAGE £7.99 (198pp))

On a murky wall in the Parisian church of Saint-Sulpice stands a mysterious Delacroix mural of Jacob's struggle with God's messenger. In this haunting and resonant book, Kauffmann explores the enigmatic painting and its setting. His quest illuminates not only the puzzles around Delacroix's work. One more terrible struggle underlies the search: Kauffmann's five years of personal darkness as a hostage in 1980s Beirut. BT

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