Paperbacks: The Pope's Daughter<br/>Gilead<br/>Swallowing Grandma<br/>Is There Anything You Want?<br/>The Penguin Freud Reader<br/>Balsamic Dreams<br/>No God but God

By Emma Hagestadt, Christina Patterson &amp; Boyd Tonkin
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The Independent Culture

The Pope's Daughter, by Caroline P Murphy (FABER £8.99 (359pp))

In the days when popes didn't see having children as a bar to the heavenly hereafter, the college of cardinals was filled with illegitimate offspring. During the Renaissance, daddies' girls started to get a look-in too. Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Alexander VI, is probably the best known papal daughter, but as Caroline P Murphy's biography shows, Felice della Rovere - daughter of Pope Julius II - outranked her contemporary Lucrezia on every count. By the time of her death, she enjoyed as much patronage and power as any Medici prince. Due to the lack of archival material about Felice's early life, the opening chapters of Murphy's book largely concentrate on the intricacies of family trees and ecclesiastical networks. Aside from her paternal connections, the most important dynastic fact of Felice's youth was her marriage into the Orsini family. Widowed not long after, Felice found herself the richest woman in Italy. Murphy's wafer-thin chapters flesh out Felice's involvement in the foundation of a new St Peter's and her rebuilding of her native city after the Sack of Rome in 1527. It's hard to get a sense of her personality but Murphy, an art historian, supplies us with plenty of circumstantial detail. EH

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (VIRAGO £7.99 (282pp))

It is more than 20 years since the publication of Marilynne Robinson's cult novel Housekeeping, but her second one was worth the wait. Set in 1956 in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, the novel, which won its author a Pulitzer Prize, is narrated by the 76-year-old pastor, John Ames. Aware that his health is failing, he decides to write a letter to his seven-year-old son. The letter is a plainly crafted epistle containing moral advice and family history (his grandfather, also a preacher, fought in the Civil War). This is a novel that demands you slow down to catch its small voice of transcendental calm. EH

Swallowing Grandma, by Kate Long (PICADOR £6.99 (350pp))

Set in the fictional Lancashire town of Bank Top, Kate Long's excellent second novel mines the seamier moments of adolescence. The 18-year-old Kat has always lived with her grandma - a nasty old biddy who plots to keep her granddaughter at her beck and call. Clever, fat and dressed in her grandma's knitwear, Kat sometimes feels too ugly to live. Then, when she is just about to take her A levels, an unknown benefactor leaves her a bag filled with half-way decent clothes. Long writes about young people trapped in eccentric family units with blunt good humour and style. EH

Is There Anything You Want? By Margaret Forster (VINTAGE £6.99 (244pp))

A cancer clinic in a small Northern town draws together the characters of Margaret Foster's latest novel - a cast of kind-hearted husbands, shy doctors, and female patients who become involved in one another's lives. At the novel's social hub is self-contained widow, Mrs Hibbert, a character who wouldn't be out of place in a Barbara Pym novel. A hospital "Friend", she stands in the ward entrance asking, "Is there anything you want?" Forster plays out her characters' quiet stories of survival with minimal fuss and bother. EH

The Penguin Freud Reader, edited by Adam Phillips (PENGUIN £14.99 (570pp))

"Freud changes our reading habits," says Adam Phillips, introducing his new selection of work by the man who invented the Oedipal theory and the talking cure. Here it all is: the Id, the Ego and the Pleasure Principle, as yet unmediated by the po-faced disciples who tried to turn their master into a Messiah. These lively new translations are a powerful reminder of the extraordinary literary and imaginative gifts of a man who wanted, above all, to be taken seriously as a scientist. The debates on that still rage. What's not in doubt is that he was a very good writer indeed. CP

Balsamic Dreams, by Joe Queenan (PICADOR £10.99 (210pp))

From its smug cover pic to spoof credits for Kafka, Ovid, etc, this smugly jovial "satire" on Baby Boomer attitudes embodies all the fatuous narcissism it's meant to attack. You'll laugh from time to time (eg at the riff on "Postponed Ponytails") but Queenan's catalogue of US consumer trivia outstays its welcome. A lazy, overblown concept album when it could have been a pacy, punky single: typical Boomer hubris. BT

No God but God, by Reza Aslan (ARROW £7.99 (310pp))

Not just a lucid and lively short history of Islam, Aslan's outstandingly useful book also clarifies today's tangled politics of belief and makes a stirring plea for Muslim modernism. Always balanced, vivid and readable, he spans the centuries from the tribal quarrels of 7th-century Arabia to the current "war on terror" with as clear a grasp of diplomacy as of theology. Yet, in the end, feeling more than erudition drives his call for a peaceful, pluralistic "tide of reform" within the faith he loves. BT

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