A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews (Knopf Canada)

In November, when Miriam Toews was awarded the Governor General's Award for Fiction -- Canada's highest literary honor -- no one who had read the book could have been very surprised. Here the author of Summer of My Amazing Luck , A Boy of Good Breeding and Swing Low: A Life takes some very simple material and makes it sing. Towes' slice of the Earth here is a tiny Mennonite community in Southern Manitoba; her protagonist is Nomi Nickel, a 16-year-old girl who is finding the move to womanhood almost more than she can take. Part of the problem is the fact that half of her family has disappeared. "The better-looking half," Nomi tells us as the book opens. And while it's a long time before the reader discovers just what happened to Nomi's mother and sister, we learn right away that she is living in the family home with her father, Ray, the gently eccentric shadow of the man Nomi's mother married. A Complicated Kindness reminds the reader of why the coming of age story is so often trotted out. In the hands of an author more concerned with the telling of her tale than the smell of her own catharsis, this oeuvre can really hum. -- Linda L. Richards

An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg (Knopf)

Mark Spragg has spent most of his life absorbing the speech and mannerisms of cowboys in Wyoming. Spragg's books (the memoir Where Rivers Change Direction and the two novels The Fruit of Stone and An Unfinished Life) resonate with a particular tough-tender masculinity of Marlboro men. Spragg, who grew up on a dude ranch near Sheridan, Wyoming, has cracked the code on the closed circle of often-inscrutable males who make their living taming horses, stringing barbed wire and leading fat, pale city slickers on elk hunts. What William Faulkner did for the Mississippi delta, Spragg does for the Rocky Mountain West -- accurately transcribing the hard-bit, stoic lives that populate the equally unyielding land. So, when we come to Spragg's new novel, An Unfinished Life, it's no surprise to find that he has convincingly etched a portrait of a bitter, grief-stricken seventy-year-old rancher named Einar Gilkyson who is counting the days until he can join his wife and son in their graves. His only reason for living is to play nursemaid to his Korean War buddy Mitch who's been disfigured in a bear attack -- a mauling which happened as Einar stood by helplessly. This would be an interesting relationship to explore in and of itself, but Spragg has more tricks up his sleeve than just a portrait of two old grizzled, "last of their breed" Western men. The book is really about a ten-year-old girl named Griff -- the granddaughter that Einar has never met. When Griff and her mother Jean show up on his doorstep, the tension rises. This is the daughter-in-law he's held responsible for his son's death in a car accident a decade ago. As the old man, his damaged friend and the precocious little girl slowly form a bond, the novel threatens to turn into a hackneyed Hallmark TV movie. Thankfully, it never does, mainly due to the rich beauty of Spragg's honed writing style. Just as Einar, who has preserved his dead son's room and wardrobe, says, "I'm careful about what I throw away," so, too, is Spragg meticulous about the words he chooses to leave on the page. -- David Abrams

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernièrs (Knopf)

Readers who enjoyed Louis de Berniérs Corelli's Mandolin -- and they were many -- had an awful long wait for another book from this author. Long enough that, after a while, you had to get to thinking that whatever he comes up with won't be good enough. If you don't count the novella, Red Dog -- and I don't -- it's been a decade but, in 2004, Bernièrs finally delivered. And what a delivery! If anything, Birds Without Wings put previous offerings from this author far, far in the shade. The canvas here is larger, for one thing. And Berniérs' ambitions seem to have been larger, as well. Set on the coast of Turkey during the First World War, Berniérs' fans will find familiar territory: war and honor, love and death and what happens in a village when battles of religion and nationalism rend the fabric of the town's historic peace. Birds Without Wings is, quite literally, breathtaking. This is the work of a mature writer at the height of his powers. It just doesn't get much better than this. -- Lincoln Cho

The Body by Hanif Kureish (Scribner)

An erotic fantasy in which an aging playwright wraps himself inside the corpse of a handsome younger man, Hanif Kureishi's The Body is as sensual as it is cerebral. Adam is in the autumn of his career, bored with his life. He learns of a procedure that will transfer his brain to the body of his choosing, and he goes for it. After a brief recovery, he walks out the door a new man. What follows are the adventures of an old soul in a young body, and a spry meditation on the distances between the two. Kureishi writes with a metaphysical whimsy reminiscent of Borges, Calvino and Nabokov. He is guided by all the right questions, and he teases out the possibilities with a calm, measured cadence. As he nudges Adam toward his destiny, he nicely balances the pleasures of the flesh with the solitude of the intellect. Rooted in philosophy, sharp in its aspect, The Body is a taut morality play with a great premise at its heart -- er, I mean, soul. -- Mark Sorkin

The Burning Land by Victoria Strauss (Eos/HarperCollins)

Victoria Strauss has created an entire world in The Burning Land. Throughout the book, one gets the feeling that we've entered here in mid-series: that, for there to be this much depth and history, six books must have come before this one. This isn't the case: The Burning Land is, thus far, the only book Strauss has set in this world, though the complicated political, religious and social customs of Strauss' world are so elaborate and well thought out, one can't help but think -- and after a while, hope -- that The Burning Land is only the first of many. -- Sienna Powers

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (Sceptre)

Postmodernism might be long out of fashion, but in ruminating upon the forms that might replace it, David Mitchell may have stumbled upon the magic formula on how to replace it: If you're going to unleash a "difficult" novel, entertain the hell out of your audience in the process. Composed of six disparate but related plots that fold into each other, Cloud Atlas is stacked to the nines with goofball antics, satirical assaults on consumerism, embedded literary references (The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in particular, gets several nods), futuristic patois, juicy side characters and a supremely emphatic concentration on humanity's unanticipated connections across centuries. When not marveling over Mitchell's deft plotting (or getting gleefully frustrated by the cliffhanger-like endings that end each section, only to be rejoined hundreds of pages later), the reader is left wondering whether Cloud Atlas is a collection of related truths or related fictions, or perhaps something in between. Mitchell uses a myriad of voices (Melville-style journals, an interview format with corporations used as verbs, a Grisham-style pulp investigation thriller) and methods to chart influence, whether it be in the form of a hologram, a filmed adaptation of a pulp novel, or an elderly scientist who may or may not be truthfully represented in a collection of letters. And while Mitchell's trapeze act starts to fizzle out towards the end, Cloud Atlas is a rollercoaster ride that endures longer than a mere amusement. As ripe thrill rides go, Cloud Atlas proves that there's room for wordplay and social commitment in the rackety sidecar. And in so doing, he's pulled off one of the greatest literary coups of the year. -- Edward Champion

The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust (DelRay)

Had I not been instructed that The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad was to be reviewed as Science Fiction/Fantasy, I wouldn't have known. Sure: there are magical realist elements, but that's true of the work of a lot of writers whose work we don't automatically stuff into any genre beyond "fiction." Debut novelist, veteran media personality and accomplished poet Minister Faust delivers an astonishing first effort with Coyote Kings. Faust's writing is strong and his characterizations deep and fulfilling. His bad guys are odious and numerous and his heroes are cheerfully heroic in an appealingly self-deprecating way. The plot here is convoluted, but the journey is engaging and the reader's attention need not flag. Best of all, The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad is utterly original, making it impossible to say: "Faust's writing is like this or that author." I feel quite comfortable in saying that there's never been a book quite like this one. -- Linda L. Richards

Crofton's Fire by Keith Coplin (G.P. Putnam's Sons)

It's hard to believe that this is a first novel from a 60-year-old college professor out of Kansas. Crofton's Fire reads as impressively as if its author, Keith Coplin, had been writing books for most of his life: no first-timer clunkiness here. I discovered this work serendipitously, just as I was bemoaning the lack of a great book to read. It was languishing at the bottom of a pile of advance readers' copies relegated to a back room of my local bookstore. Coplin's story impressed me immediately (and not just because of its beautifully designed cover). From its opening page, where, without fanfare, we're suddenly thrust into the infamous 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn, the reader's imagination is captured by the exploits of a young West Point graduate, U.S. Army Lieutenant Michael Crofton, a man whose adventurous life we will share for the next few years. A romantic with a pragmatic streak a mile wide, Crofton is at heart a simple, honorable man, often surprised by the idiosyncratic nature of his own life. It's as he shares his surprises with us (from a first-person perspective) that we fall under his storytelling spell. Through lean, spare prose and in an almost modern style (blessedly free of the usual historical novel histrionics), we come to understand that this is a man made of stern stuff, who will always manage to do his duty without losing his humanity in the process. From his remarkable survival at the Little Big Horn, through battles in the American West and a rebellion in Cuba, and finally to the bloody horrors of East Africa's Zulu wars, Crofton doggedly perseveres. Though the course of his life is made that much more complicated by indifferent Army higher-ups, he manages to find unexpected romance as well as a slew of colorful characters who help, in their distinctive ways, to shape his life -- some of those folks real, like Generals Grant and Sherman, with others being creative concoctions, such as Colonel Dupree, "a tottering old gent" for whom Crofton winds up working at the Washington, D.C., Supply and Maintenance Depot ("Dupree had been a supply officer as far back as the Buchanan administration and had spent the whole of the War Between the States in Washington. His specialty was shoes. He had shod legions of Union infantry only to discover at war's end that he was overinventoried in shoes but faced with a dwindling number of feet to put them on. He had, in time, forsaken his duty to feet and adopted a new duty, the preservation of Colonel Alexander Dupree's career. He became then one of the Army's most notable deviants, a career officer who had absolutely no value whatsoever. 'The Indians will remain unrepentant savages,' Colonel Dupree announced, 'until they start wearing shoes.'") Author Coplin manages the clever task of telling a simple yarn about a complicated life by letting us see that life through the eyes of a main character incapable of overstatement. No mean feat. If slightly reminiscent of Thomas Berger's Little Big Man and even Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Crofton's Fire remains its own unique creation. When you reach the last page, you'll wish there were still many more to read. Crofton is not a character easily left behind. -- Yvette Banek

Cruisers by Craig Nova (Shaye Areheart Books)

This 11th work of fiction by a fine American novelist is, among other things, a police-procedural book. But more to the point, it's a tale of two characters who are superficially similar but crucially apposite: two men drawn by events toward a seemingly inevitable collision. One of these men is Russell Boyd, a south Vermont state trooper with a built-in sense and dread of life's potential for disaster. The other is Frank Kohler, a computer repairman with an awful past and an unpromising future. Kohler's attempt to improve his miserable present, through marriage to a mail-order Russian bride, sets him on an oblique but fatal tangent with trooper Boyd and his straight-ahead efforts to protect and serve. Craig Nova writes a poet's prose, rich in symbols and glittering with imagery. But Cruisers is a taut and fast-paced narrative, and its story builds and maintains tension to the breaking point. Some readers will want to read this book twice: once to discover its breathtaking plot; once more to savor its finely wrought sentences, emotional shadings and structural nuances. Craig Nova's may not be a household name, but it ought to be -- at least in households which know the names of such contemporaries as Pete Dexter, Thomas Berger, Jim Harrison and Robert Stone. And Cruisers is a wonderful, riveting, heartbreaking book. -- Tom Nolan

Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland (Random House Canada)

I wonder if it's tough being the guy people depend on for cultural iconography? Tom Wolfe, for instance, does not seem to have done well with the pressure, if I Am Charlotte Simmons is any indication. In that book, Wolfe seems to be workin' it, as much as a writer ever has. Delving into waters that are personally uncharted to come up with a novel that reeks of distance and just not getting it. Eleanor Rigby, by cultural iconographer extraordinaire Douglas Coupland, is not like that. Here Coupland has created a story that touches on concerns that would seem to include some of the author's own: themes of aging and loneliness, the way terrorism and fundamentalism has touched all our lives and the endless search all humans seem engaged in for love and meaning. His story is told by Liz Dunn who, in many ways, is like The Beatles' Eleanor Rigby sprung to fictional life (indeed, Liz uses eleanorrigby@ as an e-mail address). After a lifetime spent mostly alone, she is ripped out of her life of loneliness and complacence when she meets the grown son she gave birth to as a teenager: the product of the one time, it turns out, that Liz ever had sex. Eleanor Rigby is Coupland at his most thoughtful. A delicately beautiful book that stands with the very best of this author's work. -- Aaron Blanton

The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland (Viking )

Though it has yet to pick up the steam of her previous novels, including Girl In Hyacinth Blue, Susan Vreeland's The Forest Lover is a beautiful book. Here Vreeland slices the life of Canadian artist Emily Carr. Carr's rich, vibrant paintings of the forests of the West Coast and the native totems she wanted to preserve through her art caused shock and outrage when first exhibited and eventually helped to secure her place as one of the most important of a small group of internationally known Canadian painters. In The Forest Lover Vreeland has chosen to slice Carr's life down to the artist's most productive years: between about 1904 when the painter was still very much finding her style, through to 1930 when the Canadian art establishment finally caught up with Carr and recognized that her oils were worthy of attention. From Carr's perspective, at least as depicted by Vreeland, with her first group show in Toronto, the artist felt she had finally arrived. At least, she'd arrived enough that she no longer had to dismantle her fence to make stretchers for her canvases and she no longer had to breed sheepdogs and make pots to pay her mortgage. Though Vreeland has introduced strongly fictional elements in The Forest Lover -- the whiff of a romance with another painter in France and a Quebecois trader in British Columbia, for instance -- for the most part, the author gives us beautifully reconstructed facts. It could be argued that the fictional romances Vreeland has included in The Forest Lover serve to give emotional balance to Carr's only true and documented romance: the one she enjoyed with the rugged wilderness of the northern coast of North America. -- Linda L. Richards

How to Be Lost by Amanda Eyre Ward

In her second novel, Amanda Eyre Ward more than makes good on the promise of literary talent on display in 2003's Sleep Toward Heaven. It's rare that I'd put an author on a year-end "Best of" list two years in a row, but here's Ward making a repeat appearance with an engaging story populated by vibrant characters. Sticking with the theme of women on the verge of nervous revelations. In Sleep Toward Heaven, we read of a death row inmate, a widow of one of her victims and a prison doctor whose lives all converge as the hour of execution nears. Here, in How to Be Lost, we meet Caroline Winters on a quest to find her five-year-old sister who disappeared 15 years ago. Her search takes her from New Orleans to upstate New York to Montana as she gradually realizes that what she finds in the dingy barrooms of Missoula may not be what she bargained for. Ward subtly, skillfully shows us that even the most broken, tumultuous family can be healed over time.-- David Abrams

I, Fatty by Jerry Stahl (Bloomsbury USA)

Before Hollywood discovered Charlie Chaplin, with his Hitler 'stache and too-tight derby; before sober-faced comedian Buster Keaton inked his first film contract, the star of the American cinema -- the first screen actor to be paid $1 million a year -- was Roscoe Arbuckle. Doesn't ring a bell? Well, that's because almost everyone, including his negligent, abusive, "professional boozehound" father, called him "Fatty." Born in Kansas in 1887, he would grow up to be a 375-pound fun-maker famous for his pie-throwing buffoonery. (Film critic James Agee once wrote that Arbuckle "had satanic marksmanship with pies. He could simultaneously blind two people in opposite directions.") Yet the cheering stopped in 1921, after Arbuckle was accused of raping and killing 25-year-old actress Virginia Rappe. In I, Fatty, novelist and screenwriter Jerry Stahl (whose memoir, Permanent Midnight, was made into a 1998 film starring Ben Stiller) tries to get to the heart of Fatty's fame and fall. The resulting novel is alternately endearing and pathetic, funny and maddening -- an extraordinary account with as much to say about the opportunities and hypocrisies of early 20th century America as it does about the moral posturing and personal demonizing of the early 21st. Writing from Fatty's self-effacing, frequently hilarious but sometimes naïve perspective, Stahl recalls his paunchy protagonist's abandonment as a boy in California; Roscoe's early efforts at stage entertaining, and his eventual break into silent-movie-making; his jolting experience during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and periodically equally rocky marriage to movie actress Minta Durfee; and the climb to high renown that only worsened the tumble Fatty was to take, thanks to the assistance of Hollywood's first "morals czar," mendacious "witnesses" to his assault on Rappe and a once-adoring public that turned on him in his worst hour like wolves upon a lame deer. ("My attorney told me I was a symbol of everything perceived as evil or depraved in Hollywood itself. I'd never thought of Hollywood as evil or depraved. Just overpaid ...") Along the way, we're offered insights into the bathing habits of Keystone Kops king Mack Sennett, the outrageous origins of Chaplin's trademark shuffle ("What would the public do if they knew that famous walk was the product of electrified testicles?") and Fatty's humiliation at being tried in court -- not once, but three times! -- for a rape that he was, unbeknownst to his righteous attackers, all but physically incapable of having committed. Though eventually acquitted, Arbuckle never did recover his career ... but, as Stahl imagines it, he did ultimately recover his good humor about life. Sad, wild and utterly consuming, I Fatty is as deadly and delightful in its aim to make readers care again about a forgotten icon as Roscoe Arbuckle ever was with a cream pie. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay (Viking)

The Last Light of the Sun is more than a book: it's a one-way ticket to another world so skillfully drawn, it's wrenching to leave it behind. At least part of this is due the fact that much of Kay's fantasy is based in history. His battle-hungry Erlings are wonderfully viking-like, his music-voiced Cyngael seem patterned on the people of ancient Wales and one doesn't need to read the book to guess the basis for the Anglcyns: even the name drops hints about their Anglo-Saxon leanings. Though Last Light of the Sun contains many words, Kay doesn't waste any of them. He evokes his characters and establishes his settings with broad, confident strokes. In The Last Light of the Sun, Kay attempts his darkest, and in some ways most ambitious, novel to date. His previous eight novels include Tigana, Sailing to Sarantium and The Summer Tree. -- Lincoln Cho

Monumental Propaganda by Vladimir Voinovich; translated by Andrew Bromfield (Alfred A. Knopf)

A statue of Josef Stalin in a Russian town square is the piece of monumental propaganda that gives this satirical novel its title and serves as its abiding symbol. The statue is erected in 1949, in commemoration of its subject's 70th birthday, mainly through the efforts of one Aglaya Stepanovna Revkina, a Communist Party stalwart who sees this achievement as the crowning moment of her personal and political life. The widowed Aglaya has done much for her country and party by 1949: "She had introduced the collective farm system, and participated in the rout of the opposition, and fought as a partisan, and rebuilt the district from ruins." But there are greater trials ahead. When Soviet Premier Stalin is denounced by his successors, the foundations of Aglaya's world begin to crumble. Yet she clings to her beliefs, her "principles." In time, her most meaningful relationship is with the statue of Stalin she has helped bring to "life." And eventually, gradually, others around her begin once more to see things Aglaya's way. Monumental Propaganda is a biting but humane work, in the tradition of Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls. Like the greatest satires, it forces us to care about its targets even as it mocks them. -- Tom Nolan

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz (HarperCollins UK))

Dean Koontz has seemingly been around forever (with more than 40 books to his credit, and still counting). At least, he's been around since my daughter was in high school and began reading him, and I, in my ignorance, pooh-poohed her lurid reading taste. Boy, did I have a lot to learn. Lo, these many years later, I've finally learned the error of my ways. I've discovered that Koontz is one of the finest, most inventive writers around -- and probably one of the most maligned. Sure, as an author he often tempts the boundaries of reason. Sure, he revels in horror and the paranormal more often than not. Sure, he has a reputation for telling a "certain kind" of gruesomely vivid tale. All true. But what I didn't know, until recently, was that in spite of his affection for the bizarre, this man is a positive genius at plotting, at creating dark new worlds within worlds, and most importantly, at giving life to a host of quietly heroic players who linger in the imagination long after the book is finished. Koontz's finest touch is often revealed in his piquant humor and his gentle exploration of the psyche of "outsider" characters. Rarely sinking into the cloying depths of sentimentality, he explores the disquieting ache of true loneliness as few writers can, and all under the cover of genre. Odd Thomas (originally released in December 2003, but newly available in paperback this year) focuses on a short-order cook living in the small California desert town of Pico Mundo. This existence suits "Odd" just fine. Young and able, and madly in love with Stormy Llewellyn, the most beautiful girl in the world, who works at an ice-cream shop in the local mall, Odd Thomas looks forward to a good and useful, if unspectacular, life. But he has a kind of "gift" which has plagued him since childhood: He is blessed -- or cursed, as the case may be -- with an ability to see the dead, who often appear to him with silent warnings or appeals for help. "The dead don't talk," we're told. "I don't know why." But they do communicate, sometimes in time to prevent a crime, sometimes in time to avenge one, and sometimes just because they feel like it. Written in the first-person, this is an unforgettable, if unsettling, ode to life and death, love and heartbreak, told without rancor or self-pity from the point of view of a truly wondrous individual who opens his heart and his life to us, and by doing so lifts our spirits and completely captures our imaginations. Odd Thomas is the remarkable story of a remarkable character created by a remarkable writer. -- Yvette Banek

On a Night Like This by Ellen Sussman (Warner Books)

Ellen Sussman's carefully crafted On a Night Like This is a pleasant surprise; especially taking the topic into consideration. Blair Clemens is an ex-hippie chick living in contemporary San Francisco. She is a struggling single mom who is a dying of a melanoma so convincingly described, you're checking your own moles before the end of the book. On a Night Like This is marked by Blair's relationship with Luke Bellingham, a high school acquaintance who has been assigned the task of tracking Blair down. Luke and Blair come together at an unlikely point in their lives. Blair is contemplating the end of her allotted time, largely concerned about her daughter's precarious future without her mom. Luke is recovering from a failed marriage, coming to terms with the fact that the failure was more his fault than his wife's and that, though he didn't see it coming, he had a larger hand in the unraveling of his marriage than he at first thought. By rights, the tenuous thing that springs up between Luke and Blair shouldn't work at all. It's a testament to Sussman's narrative skill that it does. It works, and more. On a Night Like This is never maudlin and seldom even sad. In fact, the opposite is true. Sussman takes all of these endings and transitions and weaves what is ultimately a beautiful and even uplifting tale.-- Linda L. Richards

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin)

Philip Roth can be accused of many things: unabated paranoia, pedantic priapisms, excoriating thinly veiled demons from his life just because, as an Elder Statesman Novelist, he can, thank you very much. And don't forget to send the Social Security check. But with The Plot Against America he's tightened his viscera into a compelling alternative reality novel, with a dash of juicy metafiction thrown into the kettle for good measure. In taking Harry Turtledove's threshing machine out for a spin (with a young lad named Philip Roth buckling on board for good measure), he's enhanced his late blooming momentum with a scenario that, in light of explosive November piñatas, remains all too plausible. Make no mistake: if Roth had merely voiced a general understanding of American Puritanical roots, it's doubtful whether The Plot Against America would sustain its impact over 400 pages. But Roth wisely supplants his exposé to the personal, embracing a bit of that old time Upton Sinclair religion on the road to hell. The Plot Against America's heart pumps its fury in the lower middle-class skids, but without the pyrotechnics that demand look-see attention. Charles Lindbergh, replacing Roosevelt as President during the 1940 election, has no problem hobnobbing with Hitler. He's determined to fly his plane across the great American heartland, steering the national vessel to a willingly isolationist groove. Where Turtledove might concentrate exclusively upon political machinations, Roth keeps his nightmarish reality doggedly personal. Walter Winchell's radio broadcasts echo Bob Hope's sullies from Canada in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, while a family trip to Washington reveals an anti-Semitism knitted into the American quilt which can't be clearly tracked and is all the more frightening because of its ambiguity. The flappable brio of Roth's father, the deadly appeal of the German-American Bund, the supreme sacrifice of Roth's brother fighting in World War II, losing a leg (with the added irony of how it was lost), and the Trail of Tears-style migration of the Jewish people all contribute to a clear examination of the American psyche that ties the personal with the political, and reveals rocky truth in the process. -- Edward Champion

Pushkin and the Queen of Spades by Alice Randall (Houghton Mifflin)

Pushkin and the Queen of Spades is a difficult book to do justice to in description. Without Randall's power and poise, the plot sounds trite when laid out: the kind of dark chick lit formerly favored by Oprah. What's difficult to convey is the mix Randall has created here. There's so much more to Pushkin and the Queen of Spades than story. And while the plot of the book is deeply compelling, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades also includes philosophizing and intellectualizing on a deliciously eloquent scale. The book is narrated by Windsor, a 43-year-old professor of Afro-Russian literature. She's writing to her son, Pushkin X -- born when Windsor was an 18-year-old undergrad at Harvard and named for "the best black brain and the fiercest black heart." Pushkin X is a professional football player. "And now," Randall writes near the book's opening, "Pushkin is marrying a white Russian lap dancer and insists on knowing who his daddy is." He is insisting so starkly, Windsor's invitation to her beloved son's wedding has been rescinded. "Pushkin's enormous sable hand reached across a table and snatched it back." Had I the power to alter Pushkin and the Queen on Spades, I wouldn't change a thing. It is just right as it sits. Perfect. -- Linda L. Richards

Someone to Run With by David Grossman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

David Grossman's sixth novel is a fast-paced tale of adolescent longing and redemption. In keeping with the Israeli author's reluctance to mix fiction with political commentary, there's hardly a Palestinian to be found in these pages, and only passing reference to cross-cultural anxieties. The story follows Assaf, a lanky errand boy in Jerusalem's City Hall; Tamar, a runaway street performer; and Dinka, the golden Labrador that brings them together. When the stray dog turns up at City Hall, Assaf is tasked with finding its owner. But Dinka immediately takes charge, dragging Assaf at breakneck speed through the streets of Jerusalem in search of Tamar. Assaf knows nothing about the girl, but as he picks up clues to her whereabouts, he learns that she's in some sort of danger. He also develops a crush on her and casts himself in an elaborate daydream as her savior. Grossman's fluid prose translates well into English and carries the reader smoothly from scene to scene, alternating between Assaf's flights of fancy and Tamar's streetwise schemes. Grossman has sprinkled a good deal of destiny into the story, as well. Fate intervenes exactly when called upon to reward chivalric deeds and punish the bad guys. The accumulation of all this wish fulfillment skews the reality that's presented, inflecting it with magic. For that reason, these teenage heroes may find their best audience among young-adult readers. -- Mark Sorkin

Transmission by Hari Kunzru (Dutton)

Given the pace at which technology is advancing, Hari Kunzru's second novel, the dot-com-era spoof Transmission, was bound to seem sort of quaint, if not dated, upon arrival. But what a pleasant diversion it is. Transmission playfully interweaves the lives of a British corporate executive, a Bollywood starlet and a geeky Indian hacker, tracing their respective misfortunes amid the collapse of the new economy. The story centers primarily on Arjun Mehta, a computer programmer who's plucked by a recruiter in New Delhi to join an IT consulting firm in Silicon Valley. Soon after he arrives, though, he gets laid off. And in a frantic ploy to reclaim his job and his girlfriend, he sets a computer virus loose on his former employers, hoping to swoop in and save the day with a quick fix. Instead, the virus rapidly infects the global economy. The damage is particularly troubling to Leela Zahir, the Bollywood actress whose name and image Arjun lovingly includes on the corrupting file attachment, and it portends disaster for young millionaire Guy Swift. Kunzru, who worked on the editorial staff at the UK edition of Wired during the late 1990s, knows a thing or two about Internet culture. With Transmission, he casts a sardonic gaze on the reckless consumption and messianic technobabble that marked the dot-com boom. Kunzru is a dynamic storyteller with a cinematic imagination, and he sends Arjun, Leela and Guy on a riveting ride. -- Mark Sorkin

War Trash by Ha Jin (Pantheon)

Yu Yuan is as innocent as Adam. Despite having graduated from a Chinese military academy, the author of Ha Jin's fictional memoir is unprepared for the reality of battle. His shock (not to mention his awe) is almost poignant. "Never had I thought that war could be so chaotic and bloody," he writes after his unit crosses the Yalu River into North Korea in March 1951. When, following an artillery barrage, a soldier is diagnosed with shell shock, he laments, "Never had I thought a man's mind was so easy to destroy." In the course of reading War Trash, one is tempted to shake the unfortunate Comrade Yu -- who is captured, only to be abused far worse by his own countrymen than by his enemies -- and shout: "Wise up!" But Yu's naiveté sets up the novel's most devastating ironic twists, one of which comes in the form of a vulgar, anti-American tattoo that follows the soldier into old age. It also lends his story an almost fable-like feel. Although a little clunky in places, Jin's prose feels right for an old survivor putting pen to paper in a second language. Wide-eyed and calm, it opens itself to the full weight of history, a history that ultimately feeds itself on the lives and spirits of Yu and his fellow Chinese. -- Brendan Wolfe

Wild Dogs by Helen Humphreys (HarperCollins)

It should not be surprising that celebrated poet-turned-novelist Helen Humphreys has relied heavily on metaphor to help drive her fiction. In The Lost Garden, we were shown war torn Britain, as viewed through the lens of a deserted English country garden. In 2004's Wild Dogs, a sweet and slender novel barely longer than a novella, Humphreys touches us metaphorically again, this time with the help of a pack of feral dogs whose wildness echoes that of Humphrey's human characters; six people who gather every evening at the edge of a wilderness to try and call their dogs home. Though slight in stature, Wild Dogs feels like Humphrey's most ambitious novel yet in that it so perfectly renders the frailty, hope and wildness in all of us. -- India Wilson

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