Paperbacks: The Ice Queen<br/>You Are Not the One<br/>The Short Day Dying<br/>A Factory of Cunning<br/>Dear Austen<br/>New and Collected Poems 1931-2001<br/>Going Sane

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The Independent Culture

The Ice Queen By Alice Hoffman (VINTAGE £5.99 (224pp))

A highly popular purveyor of adult fairy tales, Alice Hoffman describes in her fiction a modern America redeemed by hocus pocus and folkloric frontiersmen. In her latest novel, as in her best-known work, Practical Magic, the affairs of man and nature are mystically intertwined. The novel's nameless narrator, a worringly pale librarian, has recently moved from New Jersey to Florida when she's hit by lightning - not a metaphorical bolt from the blue, but a full-wattage attack that leaves her bald and colour-blind. At a self-help group for fellow strike victims - there are a lot of electrical storms in Florida - she learns about Lazarus Jones, a man rumoured to have survived 40 minutes without a heartbeat. Tracking him down to his homestead on a remote orange grove, she meets a young farmhand with eyes the colour of ash. Sparks fly and passions ignite - but as she's the ice queen of the title, and his touch scalds her skin, their smooching has to take place in an ice-filled bath. At times, Hoffman's incantatory prose casts a spell, at others - as during the arctic sex - an element of loopiness threatens to prevail. Fans of the author's earlier tales of fractured family life will be disappointed by a novel whose comforts are more palliative than real. In Hoffman's world "magic makes sense. Lightning does not." EH

You Are Not the One By Vestal McIntyre (CANONGATE £7.99 (242pp))

Many of the stories in Vestal McIntyre's debut collection capture that moment when it looks as if life might take a turn for the better. In "Octo", a young boy struggles to hide a pet octopus that keeps escaping from its tank and wrapping itself around the furniture; in "Binge", a 40-year-old woman decides to get high at a formal Manhattan drinks party. McIntyre's narratives may verge on the surreal, but spring from a reassuringly sane place. The story in which a snooty teen decides to read Moby-Dick to a cousin with Downs syndrome is particularly affecting. EH

The Short Day Dying By Peter Hobbs (FABER & FABER £7.99 (197pp))

Strong and silent may no longer be fashionable, but Peter Hobbs's powerful debut shows just how effective a quietly told story can be. The novel's narrator, Charles Wenmoth, is a 19th-century Methodist minister who spends too much time alone tramping the Cornish coastline. A passionate man, he's as much in love with nature as with prayer, but when he finds himself growing attached to a young woman dying from tuberculosis, he's at a loss at how to express himself. An unrelenting novel which doesn't flinch from the realities of enclosed lives and rural poverty. EH

A Factory of Cunning By Philippa Stockley (ABACUS £7.99 (377pp))

It's hard not to feel a little jaded at the prospect of another 18th-century deflowering, but Stockley's historical romp is an example of the genre at the top of its game. The self-named Mrs Fox, on the run from a Parisian scandal, arrives in London with little money, but with a scheme to ruin a priapic predator, Urban Fine. The patsy of the piece is to be the doll-faced daughter of a clergyman, a girl whose best interest we never truly have at heart. In this epistolary bodice-ripper, which asks us to scratch and sniff, rather than look and see, Stockley takes her cue from Hogarth, not Heyer. EH

Dear Austen By Nina Bawden (VIRAGO £6.99 (130pp))

In May 2002, novelist Nina Bawden lost her husband in the Potters Bar rail crash - which killed six others and severely injured her - after the failure of badly-maintained points with 83 separate defects. Her quietly ferocious memoir-cum-indictment, a J'Accuse for the era of squalid privatisations, is couched in the form of a tender letter to him about the months of shameful delays and deceptions that ensued. This tough gem of a book not only celebrates a long, loving partnership. It builds into a damning verdict on the contracted-out culture of buck-passing, duty-shirking and profit-taking that the Chancellor has - to his deep discredit - done so much to promote. BT

New and Collected Poems 1931-2001 By Czeslaw Milosz (PENGUIN £17.99 (776pp))

Dear for a softback, but still priceless. This definitive collection of poetry from the Polish-Lithuanian master (who died in 2004) will open doors for newcomers into one of the richest landscapes of modern writing. Survivor of both Nazi and Stalinist terrors, exile, pilgrim and prophet, Milosz spans a century of sorrows and yet always somehow finds a way to joy. Typically, one of his last-ever lyrics was a teasing riposte to Philip Larkin's gloom. BT

Going Sane By Adam Phillips (PENGUIN £8.99 (245pp))

"There is tremendous fear in our culture about madness," says Adam Phillips in this elegant and lucid book, but "no particular enthusiasm for sanity". Setting out to explore how we might cease to be the only animals who "can't bear themselves", he looks at some of the myths about madness, including the Romantic fantasy of the artist. This erudite and absorbing book oozes intelligence and charm. CP

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