In such skilled hands, intrigue in Stalinist Russia cannot fail to grip

Fig Tree, £18.99

Dunmore is one of the literary establishment’s most respected practitioners: she’s a poet and an Orange Prize short-listed author. Her work isn’t light reading, but fans call it some of the most rewarding on the shelves today.

Following on from The Siege (short-listed for the Orange Prize in 2001) – in which Dunmore excelled at portraying the drudgery and terror of the life of ordinary citizens in wartime Russia – The Betrayal picks up on the stories of Anna and her husband Andrei, a doctor. It’s Leningrad in 1952, where Stalinism reigns supreme and an air of potential menace is everywhere. The couple have managed to stay together and alive, working to keep some morsel of private happiness while looking after Anna’s younger brother, the troubled teenager Kolya, whose birth killed their mother (distorted family ties is a big theme here).

But with the opening gambit of The Betrayal, things reach a truly dangerous pass when Andrei is presented with a patient he is damned if he treats (because it’s not likely to work) and damned – or dead – if he doesn’t. It’s the son of Volkov, a senior secret police officer, and Andrei and Anna immediately sniff the danger in what seems an inevitable failure. But their hands are tied: Volkov now knows who they are, and in this world, favour comes and goes like puffs of lethal wind.

Dunmore masterfully evokes the fabric of horror that defines a society where life and death decisions are based on whispered rumours and fearful tip-offs. World-renowned Soviet expert Antony Beevor, the author of Stalingrad, has commended this book, and so should you. Written with skill such as Dunmore’s, the awful intrigue of Stalinist Russia takes on new fascination.

Pocket Books, £6.99

To open this book is to be violently initiated into the cacophony of the modern, fast-talking, fast-thinking Liverpool singleton’s inner monologue. It’s compulsive in the extreme, but a bit of a shock to the system if you’re used to more classical or sedate writing.

Lucy Tyler is heading out on a date with the hunky Sean, who she met at a “networking event” – she works in PR. In preparation, “I have removed all trace of extraneous body hair so that my bikini area now resembles that of a Californian porn star. Just in case.” Just in case she ends up breaking the no-sex-on-the-first-date rule, that is.

That doesn’t happen, as the date – like so many others – goes belly up when Lucy, trying to be a date-worthy “me” rather than “the real me” ends up only making matters worse. On this occasion she repulses Sean by getting her feet stuck to her stool with the bubble gum she used to keep her shoes from sliding off her feet. Then she gets too drunk to remember his name.

Back at home, her best friend and room-mate Henry comforts her. Flash forward a few pages, and homely old Henry asks Lucy and her friends Dominique and Erin to help him makeover his image. They gleefully get him sorted with a haircut and fashion overhaul, as well as lessons in flirting and seduction, only to discover that they’ve created a dreamboat. Suddenly “Project Henry” stops being quite so straightforward: after all, you’re not meant to suddenly find your old best male friend supersonically attractive, are you? No indeed. And living with the man of everyone else’s dreams hardly helps matters when your own dates are going wrong all the time. This is a perfect book for anyone seeking light relief. And if you’re travelling, take it with you: it’ll make time fly.

John Murray, £19.99

This gritty thriller by Edgar Allen Poe Award-shortlisted Hughes is about a murderer that always kills in threes. It opens with a silky, chilling inner monologue of the killer, trying to explain and recall the first time he strangled a girl to death. Fear, anxiety, loathing – all are there, as well as an appreciation of fine Prosecco and a cultured taste in classical music.

Switch gears to Dublin, where trusty investigator Ed Loy is happily enjoying a new relationship and minding his own business. Suddenly, his path crosses with an old friend, Jack Donovan, a movie director friend from LA. Bodies of women have been turning up in Hollywood.

Loy becomes uneasy when the bodies turn up in locations Donovan has used for his films; meanwhile one of his extras fails to turn up to work one day. Loy flies to LA to work with the LAPD on their investigation, hoping, of course, to find a way to exonerate his old friend. When he finally unearths the truth, it look like it may be too late: for back in Dublin, the killer has broken his pattern, broken cover and gone for Loy where he’s most vulnerable. It’s a race against the clock as Loy mounts a desperate struggle to outwit a ruthless, twisted psychopath and save the remaining lost girls. Expert, skillful and really worth a read.