Paperbacks: The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro<br></br>The Light of Day<br></br>The Long Falling<br></br>Things We Knew Were True<br></br>Toast<br></br>My Invented Country<br></br>Paris after the Liberation

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The Independent Culture

The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro by Paul Theroux (PENGUIN £7.99 (271pp))

Performance anxiety can affect even the most experienced of novelists when it comes to writing about sex. Paul Theroux, however, has never been shy about dipping his toe in the erotic shallows. His latest collection of stories includes several tales of sexual power-play, and although his preoccupation with a certain position has landed him in the dog house (with both male and female critics), he manages to keep his literary laurels in place throughout. The novella after which the collection is named opens with a chance encounter on a hotel terrace in Sicily. A brash young American is offered free board and lodging on the condition that he manages to seduce "the Grafin" - an imperious German countess also staying at the hotel. By day he acts as her flunky; by night their positions are reversed. Forty years on, the narrator revisits the scene of his adventure. Sexual reminiscence continues as a theme throughout the collection. In "An African Story", a 60-year-old writer recalls an affair with a one-armed Zulu school teacher who liked to howl "on all fours" like a cat. Theroux, the travel writer, can capture the heat of a Sicilian afternoon with sizzling intensity: what goes on behind closed shutters is a more veterinary affair. EH

The Light of Day by Graham Swift (PENGUIN £7.99 (323pp))

George, the Chandler-esque narrator of Graham Swift's easy-going novel, runs a private detective agency on Wimbledon Broadway: a good profession for a narrator, as he spends most of his time looking for clues, both to life's little mysteries and his own. Approached by a local lecturer to keep tabs on her errant husband (a gynaecologist having an affair with a Croatian student), he finds himself drawn to a sad woman with classy handbags and clever eyes. The leafy drives of Wimbledon provide the setting for a quietly conventional tragedy. Swift elevates the south London soul into a thing of beauty.

The Long Falling by Keith Ridgway (FABER £7.99 (306pp))

This was the award-winning début by Irish novelist Keith Ridgway, now better known as the author of The Parts. The novel's central character, Grace Quinn, is trapped in a loveless marriage. Blamed by her husband for the death of their three-year-old son (he drowns in an inch of ditchwater), she seeks comfort in the company of second son, Martin, who leaves the family home as decently as possible. Grace's scramble for freedom takes the form of a hit-and-run. Boggy landscapes and muddled passions are delicately captured in Ridgway's spare, melancholic prose. A picture of a rural Ireland you might have thought no longer existed. EH

Things We Knew Were True by Nicci Gerrard (PENGUIN £6.99 (310pp))

Nicci Gerrard is best known as the author of a series of chilling psychological thrillers (co-written with her husband as "Nicci French"). Her solo début sees her up to some sleuthing of her own. Family secrets are at the heart of this engaging slice of domestic realism -- thrown up when three middle-aged sisters embark on a clear-out of their mother's things. Revelations about their parents' past tempts one of them to track down the first man in her life. A cautionary tale for mid-lifers who have started to view their pasts through spectacles, rose-tinted or otherwise. EH

Toast by Nigel Slater (HARPER PERENNIAL £7.99 (247pp))

"You're HOPELESS, I hope you DIE" yells Nigel Slater to his mother when she forgets to buy the filling for the mince pies. A few days later, she did, condemning her sensitive, food-loving son to a new life with his stern father and icily genteel stepmother. Slater's enchanting memoir starts innocently enough: with toast, of course, Christmas cake, sherry trifle and, those stalwarts of the Seventies, banana Nesquik and butterscotch Angel Delight. But this is food as symbol, metaphor and Proustian trigger for memories that range from the nostalgically carefree to the deeply sad. Moving, funny and finely crafted, this is a true gem. CP

My Invented Country by Isabel Allende (HARPER PERENNIAL £7.99 (198pp))

This brisk and buttonholing memoir from the Chilean novelist reads almost like an interview: salty, brash, informal. Allende conjures up her own private Chile: its "insular mentality", its formal airs and graces, its poetry and pride. We rattle through her upper-crust childhood and stuffy first marriage, the trauma of her cousin Salvador's overthrow by Pinochet and her daughter's death, her leap into global fame. It's mouthy, funny, shrewd - but she never really tries to plumb the depths. BT

Paris after the Liberation by Antony Beevor & Artemis Cooper (PENGUIN £12.99 (436pp))

An object-lesson in the art of blending politics with culture. This husband-and-wife team trace the fractious end of Nazi Occupation and the return of French liberty across many fronts. They stretch from the intrigues of De Gaulle and Communists to the Left Bank haunts of Sartre and De Beauvoir, and salons and studios where Chanel and Chevalier ruled. These postwar Enfants du Paradis didn't make heaven on earth, but did strut with style on a chaotic stage. BT