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Tales of love and class

Just when we're all beginning to feel thoroughly button-holed by the sad-but-sassy single girls bemoaning their fate from every fiction list, Katinka O'Toole, the heroine of Mameve Medwed's Mail (Gollancz, pounds 9.99) comes riding in to save the genre. Katinka has none of the stock characteristics of the "does-my-bum-look-big-in this?" school of writing. She's a 31-year-old fair-to-muddling [sic] academic who lives in Cambridge, Mass. and teaches fiction writing to Harvard undergrads while fielding rejection slips by the bucket-load for her own literary offerings. The rejection letters, however, are delivered by the drop-dead gorgeous mailman, Louie Cappetti, and Katinka, whose ex-husband is a Joyce scholar, soon begins to wonder if a large vocabulary is all you really need in a lover. It doesn't help that her mother has just landed one of Harvard's most distinguished professors and when Jake, a clever but sexually uninspiring lawyer, throws his hat into the ring, Katinka must make her choice between Brooks Brothers security and blue-collar passion.

Mail is a marvellously polished first novel. The writing is always considered and often inspired, with none of the undignified scrambling for one-liners and pull-quotes that has come to characterise the comic novel. Even without the Phi-Beta-Kappa setting, this is thoroughly classy stuff.

Class is also the issue underlying Lucy English's first novel. Selfish People (Fourth Estate, pounds 6.99) is set among the not-quite-crusties of Bristol, a shifting sub-culture of displaced persons surviving on benefits and casual labour. Sociologically speaking, English's characters may be one of the most interesting products of the last decade, but God knows they're a dull lot to read about. To be fair, Samuel Beckett would have a hard job spinning substance from a scenario where characters either slump stoned in front of the telly or engage in yet another discussion about when and where to get smashed, and English is no Beckett. Nor, despite the publicity blurb, does she line up with Irvine Welsh and James Kelman, who draw urgency from their authenticity and absolute familiarity with their material. English's narrative voice has the nervous squeak of someone trying too hard to fit in. It is not that she doesn't know her subject - the novel is marketed as autobiographical and there is no doubting her identification, even infatuation, with the dispossessed, but this is not enough to keep the reader going and for a novel calling itself a love story, there simply isn't enough love in it.

The Arrogance of Women (Hutchinson, pounds 16.99) by Teresa Benison is an old- fashioned vampire tale dressed up as a psychological novel. Eleanor Bycroft is "bright as jet and hard as diamond". Her hair is "the wing of a great black bird" and she has a habit of scraping men's scrotums with cruelly "honed" fingernails. We are in high Gothic territory here, and when Eleanor can't decide between sensitive Adam and psychotic Simon who beats her up, a macabre square dance is set in motion with Eleanor's best friend Jess making up the numbers. It is only when Eleanor's studied sadomasochism reveals itself in her baby daughter that it all turns truly nasty. Factor in the "man with the child in his eyes" cod psychology and it becomes clear that this is a book that only the most hardened Kate Bush fan could enjoy.

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