Paperbacks: The Republic of Trees<br/>The Best Kept Secret<br/>The Rapids<br/>Runaway<br/>French Women Don't Get Fat<br/>Dancing in the No-Fly Zone<br/>Shepperton Babylon

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Republic of Trees, by Sam Taylor (FABER £7.99 (224pp))

Long hot summers and first love go hand in hand: Sam Taylor's first novel captures the hallucinatory qualities of both. In a far-flung corner of the French Pyrenees four teenagers decide to leave civilisation behind, and pursue a noble existence in the forest. Life without the grown-ups is a well-trodden path, but Taylor negotiates his way with a beginner's bravado. Michael, the novel's hyper-intuitive narrator, and older brother, Louis, are half English orphans brought up by a depressed French aunt. Alex and sister Isobel are the offspring of an expat couple who have bought a local château. The boredom of small-town life drives the English speakers together. Temperatures and libidos are high as the group "escape" to the woods. Alex and Louis bond; Isobel initiates Michael into the mysteries of sex. Back at base camp all four get hot under the collar about Rousseau and the French Revolution. Into this languid landscape comes newcomer Joy - who shares Louis's passion for the Sans-culottes. Once a guillotine is in place - ducks are the first victims - we know that we are headed for something more Blair Witch Project than Arthur Ransome. A fluent stylist, Taylor has little trouble in keeping us under his sea-green spell. Teen readers will lap up his brutal, if slighty dotty, dénouement. EH

The Best Kept Secret, by Janet Reibstein (BLOOMSBURY £12.99 (308pp))

With Valentine's Day fast approaching, Exeter-based psychologist Reibstein asks us to consider what it takes to forge a successful relationship. Before the magic formula can be revealed, we must plough through several hundred pages of case histories featuring the kind of domestic minutiae that will make you glad to crawl back into the tree-house with Naomi Wolf. Wolf reduced the secret of happiness to 12 rules; Reibstein has 10. Comic writer Guy Browning has done even better, with just one. Most forms of love are fine, he says, "so long as you're both having the same experience". EH

The Rapids, by Tim Parks (VINTAGE £7.99 (246pp))

A bit like John Berger's creations, the characters in Tim Parks' latest Euro-escapade are unfamiliar creatures. Clive, a middle-aged radical, roams around the Continent organising anti-government riots; Michaela, his young and beautiful Italian girlfriend, is as in love with him as his green politics. In a bid to raise money, the two set up a whitewater kayaking course in a remote spot in the Italian Alps. Clive cuts off sexual relations as "this isn't the right world for love". Tensions rise as the couple try to keep their relationship - and nine holiday-makers - afloat on a wild stretch of river, in a novel that slips out of reach just as you think you grasp where it's going. EH

Runaway, by Alice Munro (VINTAGE £7.99 (335pp))

Like much of Munro's work, Runaway, her 10th short-story collection, is set in some of Canada's most isolated provinces, and spans several decades. Against this relentlessly bleak landscape, Munro describes ordinary lives that disguise larger drama and disappointment. Most of Munro's characters are women in flight. In the gripping story, "Chance", a bright young classicist decides to jettison her hard-won sense of self, and track down a middle-aged man she once met. In the opening story, a widow tries to help a woman escape from an abusive marriage, not recognising her buried passion. More happens in a Munro story than in most novels. EH

French Women Don't Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano (VINTAGE £7.99 (290pp))

For anyone who spent Monday night in paroxyms of horror over Channel 4's "half-ton man", Mireille Guiliano's examples of excess adipose tissue (and calories) may seem rather small fry. "Camille", whose 10 extra kilos were, apparently, wrecking her corporate career, used to have a glass of beer each night. "Caroline" would have a glass of orange juice with breakfast. Both learnt to shed these disgusting habits under the gorgon gaze of the smug Guiliano. The answer: herb tea, apple tart made with cabbage leaves instead of pastry, and a single mouthful of pudding. Mmm! Donnez la femme un doctorat. CP

Dancing in the No-Fly Zone, by Hadani Ditmars (ARRIS BOOKS £9.99 (264pp))

Not just another batch of war stories, Ditmars' fine reports from Iraq reveal aspects of the country - both pre- and post-invasion - that the battlefield junkies overlook. From the comic actor who adores Mr Bean and the conductor who brings Berlioz to Baghdad to the artists and cabaret stars, she seeks out Iraq's dogged creative spirits, and touches places in the nation's soul that horror- headlines never reach. BT

Shepperton Babylon, by Matthew Sweet (FABER £9.99 (388pp))

Never mind, Ang Lee. Roy Baker and his leather-clad star Dirk Bogarde patented the gay Western - albeit one deep in the closet - with The Singer not the Song in 1959. Sweet threads this and other forgotten gems through a funny but touching backlot history of British films. He valiantly defends the lost comedies, mysteries and romances. Yet, in finest Ealing style, affection vies with absurdity in these 80 years of carry-ons down the studio. BT