In this comic classic dating from 1893, the adventures of two Anglo- Irish female cousins are prompted by a London downpour. "I'd be ashamed to show such weather to a Connemara pig," says one. In a trice the twosome are roaming the West of Ireland, fuelled by Bovril and Bath Olivers and tugged by a reluctant mule called Sibbie. "Nourish him wid the whip", recommends a know-all. They share lodgings with fleas and find a goose under their bed - though this isn't as bad as a male friend who discovers snoring coming from his bed: "Ah, sure, 'tis only the priest", reassures his landlady. "He'll not disturb ye at all." Despite a few longueurs, this remains an enjoyable, affectionate read.
The Ventriloquist's Tale by Pauline Melville (Bloomsbury, pounds 6.99)
Tales of magic, incest and the Amerindian Savannah - in which Evelyn Waugh and a Jewish girl from Dulwich make cameo appearances ... sounds eccentric, to say the least. But Pauline Melville's amazingly limber first novel is deliciously atmospheric and unexpectedly rude. Set in multi-racial Guyana, Melville's story tells of a part Wapisian-Indian, part European family, whose lively appetites get them into some unlikely bedroom situations.
Below the Convergence by Alan Gurney (Pimlico, pounds 10)
Enthralling tales of hardship and bravery set where the Antarctic chill commences. We accompany Edmund Halley, who had to overcome virtual mutiny on a scientific voyage in 1699, and Captain Cook ("never a man to strew compliments like a farmhand broadcasting grain"), who disproved the notion of a giant continent in the far south. The first landfall on Antarctica was made by a merchant vessel with the prosaic name Williams while escaping storms in 1819. Within two years, the region's wildlife suffered appalling losses - it is estimated that half a million seals were slaughtered annually for their skins. Gurney is a master storyteller with a mariner's eye for detail.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (Sceptre, pounds 6.99)
Civil War epic by an unknown, and suitably rugged-looking, college professor from North Carolina, which swept to the top of the American bestseller lists before its publishers could say "Rhett Butler". If you can ignore the attendant hype, this is a book worth reading. Based on his own family history, Frazier's story concerns a confederate soldier who deserts the battle fields and sets off on the long walk home to farm and sweetheart. Love, chilblains and spectacular scenery.
W B Yeats: a life by Stephen Coote (Sceptre, pounds 8.99)
Appearing shortly after the first volume of Roy Foster's massive biography of Yeats, this highly readable life was unfairly eclipsed. Though thorough, Coote's portrait is perhaps better suited to the general reader as it pursues the great dramatic shifts of Yeats's emotion-packed life. Born into the Protestant middle classes, Yeats was infused by Irish mysticism during his Sligo childhood. With his penchant for the occult, his Irish nationalism, his sexual anguish (which culminated in a vasectomy at the age of 69) and his wonderful, fresh-minted poetry, Coote has no shortage of material and he makes splendid use of it.
Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes (Bantam, pounds 6.99)
When poet Frances Mayes first saw the deserted villa Bramasole teetering on the edge of a Tuscan hillside - tall, square and apricot - she wanted to run in and hang up her clothes in its wardrobes. And being a "can do" American, that's exactly what she did. It took four years for Mayes to transform her ruin into a haven of whitewashed walls and potted lemon trees, and though the book occasionally looks more like a classy travel piece than the grubby adventure it must have been, there's no greater pleasure than watching someone else strip the paintwork.
'Contemporary' by Lesley Jackson (Phaidon, pounds 21.95)
Jackson's persuasive re-evaluation of Fifties design has become a key work for hip retro-ironicists. Pierre Koenig's plate-glass homes, cantilevered high over the Hollywood Hills, and Philip Johnson's Glass House in Connecticut are still breathtaking. Daring adverts for Linoleum and Formica ("a vast and versatile palette") reveal how Britain shared in the movement. The book's clean images even make the Le Corbusier-inspired high-rise blocks of Roehampton look appealing. But Jackson doubts if a true new "Contemporary" style will emerge, given "so little faith in the creativity of the present and so a great pillaging of the past".
'1946 (composition, still life)', oil and pencil on canvas, by Ben Nicholson, from Norbert Lynton's classic study of the artist, which has now been re-issued in paperback by Phaidon (pounds 21.95)Reuse content