Paperbacks: When the Women Come out to Dance<br></br>A Lovesome Thing<br></br>The Fourth Queen<br></br>K: the Art of Love<br></br>Love Works Like This<br></br>Chopin's Funeral<br></br>Germinal

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The Independent Culture

When the Women Come out to Dance by Elmore Leonard (PENGUIN £7.99 (228pp))

Elmore Leonard's Hollywood-tight prose works well in short fiction, and it is perhaps surprising that he hasn't written more of it. In this collection of nine short stories, seven of which have been published elsewhere, Leonard reprises characters from past novels alongside a new cast of smooth-talking screw-ups and their gun-toting women.

Sex and firearms appear in almost all the stories, but mainly as props for some unexpectedly tender emotions. The story "Sparks" features a foxy young widow who may or may not have burned down her late husband's Italianate villa. The insurance investigator turns out to be more interested in working out who she reminds him of - Linda Fiorentino - than nailing her for the scam. The story "Hanging Out at the Buena Vista" is no less soft-centred - a succinct vignette of a geriatric romance set in a palm-fringed retirement home. It's only in the story, "Fire in the Hole", the most substantial piece in the book, that any ammunition is actually fired. A story describing the relationship between two old coal-mining buddies whose lives have taken very different directions, it ends in a classic Western-style shoot-out. Stories that have a lot in common with a good episode of The Rockford Files, though in Leonard's world it's the bad guys who end up with all the best lines. EH

A Lovesome Thing by Prue Leith (PENGUIN £6.99 (396pp))

After this potboiler, the cookery school supremo, Prue Leith, may well find herself short of fresh ingredients. A likeable enough romance about a middle-aged Fulhamite who starts over as the Head Gardener on a country estate, it manages to combine shades of Home Front and Would Like to Meet with a touch of the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstalls. Lotte, divorced mother of three, has a hard job convincing her millionaire boss of the aesthetics of posh garden design. His bad taste also extends to his love life - he's married to an oh-so-common ex-model called Jade. Luckily, Lotte is on hand to show him where to hang the wellies. EH

The Fourth Queen by Debbie Taylor (PENGUIN £6.99 (487pp))

The editor of the literary magazine Mslexia, Debbie Taylor has updated the traditional historical bodice-ripper with startling results. Based on the true story of a Scottish girl captured by pirates and then sold into the harem of a Moroccan emperor, the novel evokes a claustrophobic world of sluttish women and gloriously pampered babies. As Helen becomes ever more prized for her milky skin, dimpled thighs and carroty locks, she's inducted by an enthusiastic master into the ways of wobbly sex and imperial perversion. Her confidant is a priapic dwarf (also Scottish) called Microphilus. A novel of spicy sensuality, intelligence and thrilling adventure. EH

K: the Art of Love by Hong Ying (BLACK SWAN £6.99 (285pp))

Hong Ying's fictional portrayal of a love affair between Julian Bell and the Chinese writer and painter Ling Cheng is probably one of the most laid-back books ever written about the Bloomsbury set. Bell was sent to China in 1936, to teach English Lit at Wuhan University, and joined the bespectacled intellectuals of the New Moon Society, where he met and fell in love with the enticing Ling. She took to tutoring the new recruit in the Taoist Art of Love; Bell shared his new-found knowledge with his mother Vanessa, in a series of informative letters back home. Somehow the illicit thrills of ying and yang love sound better in a foreign context. EH

Love Works Like This by Lauren Slater (BLOOMSBURY £7.99 (175pp))

"'I hope you really want this baby," says Lauren Slater to her husband on her way to the hospital, "because I just decided I don't." In the flood of books by women writers who seem to believe that no one has ever given birth before, this one stands out. Author of Prozac Diary, a moving account of her struggles with mental illness, Slater writes here with breathtaking honesty and astonishing lyrical precision about her "travels through a pregnant year", a journey that involves large doses of anti-psychotic medication and anxiety about her capacity to love. The result is unexpectedly gripping and, at times, surprisingly funny. CP

Chopin's Funeral by Benita Eisler (ABACUS £7.99 (245pp))

Too many noisy biographies of Romantic icons stress the heart over the art. So Eisler's shrewd and eloquent study of the Polish maestro's high and low notes deserves a fanfare. As she follows the dashing pianist-composer from his youthful conquest of Paris, through his love for the novelist George Sand, to his early death in 1849, Eisler never forgets that the music justifies our curiosity about the passion. She sketches Chopin's keyboard revolution with a light touch, and movingly connects his magical "late" style with the diminuendo of his hopes. BT

Germinal by Emile Zola (PENGUIN CLASSICS £7.99 (546pp))

As British writers and film-makers strive to tell the story of our traumatic coal strike, they might still learn from this grimy granddaddy of mining-epics. Published in 1885, Zola's social tragedy unfolds in the bleak coalfields of northern France. The novel pits the volatile strike leader Etienne Lantier against not only his bosses, but the unforgiving Earth itself. Zola mingles social battles with a dark, Darwinian vision of Nature. Germinal hit polite Europe like a ton of nutty slack; in Roger Pearson's splendid new translation, it has lost not a nugget of its power. BT