Paperbacks: The Delicate Storm<br></br>The Petty Details of So-and-So's Life<br></br>The Photograph<br></br>The Gospel According to Gracey<br></br>The Maid's Request<br></br>Stranger on a Train<br></br>This is Craig Brown

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The Independent Culture

The Delicate Storm by Giles Blunt (HARPERCOLLINS £6.99 (480pp))

Giles Blunt's début, Forty Words for Sorrow, received rave reviews and won a Crime Writers' Association Silver Dagger. That book, with its eerie Alaskan setting, revealed an impressive fresh voice. Now Blunt has followed it with another novel featuring world-weary Canadian detective John Cardinal and his sidekick, policewoman Lise Delorme. His kingdom of ice and snow is not so strange now. So how does Blunt's return measure up?

It starts promisingly, with chewed-up human pieces around Algonquin Bay. Who fed the bits to the bears? Enter Cardinal, the victim of long-standing personal angst, and Delorme, with her baggage of French-Canadian anger. The "Delicate Storm" is the complex interplay of French-English relations, as well as the effects of frost and snow. Then we have another creepy discovery: an iced-over corpse. Soon the case involves the Mounties, who rather disappointingly drive around on four wheels, an elite dedicated to crime with international implications.

Blunt's grasp on character and setting is as compelling as ever. But the story drifts outside the frozen limits, dissipating its force in big-city politics away from the permafrost patch. Still, the interior development of Cardinal is powerfully achieved. His dogged heroism will make the reader want to follow him through further adventures. JJ

The Petty Details of So-and-So's Life by Camilla Gibb (VINTAGE £6.99 (381pp))

In the tradition of clear-sighted female Canadian novelists, Camilla Gibb pulls no punches when it to comes to detailing the long-term effects of a messed-up childhood. Her début novel, Mouthing the Words, was the story of an anorexic with a multiple personality disorder. In her latest book two siblings, Emma and Blue, cling together in the basement of their loveless home. Getting over a dad who defecates in the garden calls for some extreme measures. Gibb writes with frosty intelligence about the trials of trying to grow up normal. EH

The Photograph by Penelope Lively (PENGUIN £7.99 (236pp))

Penelope Lively has always been drawn to clues archaeological. Unearthing personalities from under layers of happenstance and history is her stock-in-trade. In this, her fifteenth novel, a widower discovers an old photograph which shows his wife, the beautiful Kath, hand in hand with her brother-in-law. Unable to keep the secret to himself, Glyn inflicts the evidence on the surviving members of the group - particularly Kath's bossy older sister, Elaine. Lively's characters are so well drawn that, for all the emotional turmoil, you know they'll continue to sit down to well planned meals and good bottles of wine. EH

The Gospel According to Gracey by Suzanne Kingsbury (CHATTO £10.99 (226pp))

What's wrong with the United States? It's a subject close to many writers' hearts, but according to the Southern novelist Suzanne Kingsbury the answer is the nation's appetite for cocaine. Kingsbury's menagerie of addicts includes Gracey (the ex-wife of a notorious runner), Deneeka (a transvestite hooker) and two wealthy teens. This intense read is based on the author's own experience of helping out on Atlanta's needle-exchange programme. All the atmosphere of Traffic, but without the good-looking camera-work. EH

The Maid's Request by Michèle Desbordes (FABER £6.99 (149pp))

Set in the chateau of Clos, in the Loire Valley, the French novelist Michèle Desbordes' haunting début records the unfolding relationship between the dying Leonardo da Vinci and his middle-aged maid, Tassine. Best read like a sampler of meditative poetry, this slim narrative is as much about the seasonal rhythms of life in the river valley as the artist's last thoughts and regrets. Master and servant share little dialogue, just a comfortable acceptance of approaching death. This is a book that leaves the smell of box-hedge and river water lingering in the nostrils. EH

Stranger on a Train by Jenny Diski (VIRAGO £7.99 (280pp))

As a child, Jenny Diski would escape from the unhappiness of her home by spending entire days on the Circle Line, ensconced in the books that kept her misery at bay. As an adult, she repeats this experience on an epic scale, travelling (and smoking) around America by train. "Some travellers have a goal, a mystery they want to unravel," she announces, "but I had none of these." Her aimless journey, spent closeted with an eclectic range of fellow-smokers, proves a fruitful source of memoirs-cum-musings that are weirdly hypnotic and, yes, even addictive. CP

This is Craig Brown by Craig Brown (EBURY £7.99 (499pp))

Nobody does prose parody and media satire better than the vastly prolific humourist, although this hefty round-up suggests you can have too much of a good thing. At his peerless best (his Private Eye "diaries" for everyone from Anthea Turner to Gore Vidal; mock-punditry by "Wallace Arnold" and "Bel Littlejohn"), Brown is superb. Skim the routine columns, and that still leaves 300-plus pages of pure comic gold. BT

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