Book roundup

The Commission, by Michael Norman (Poisoned Pen Press)

A member of Salt Lake City's parole board is gunned down outside his home after a tryst with a stripper, and Sam Kincaid, chief of the Special Investigations Branch of the Utah Department of Corrections, is assigned to help police catch the killer (and if Kincaid's boss has his way, make sure that the murderer wasn't a former parolee). Kincaid, we are told, is a "devoted" single dad, though he spends more of the book admiring the long legs and brunette hair of homicide detective Lt. Kate McConnell than he ever does parenting. The mystery itself chugs along nicely, but while Norman's just-the-facts style and plain expository writing might please fans of "Law & Order" or "Dragnet," those of us who like a little more character development and literary flair with our police procedurals will be left cold. Grade: C

Fieldwork, by Mischa Berlinski (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

A freelance journalist living in Thailand learns all about obsession in Berlinski's top-notch debut novel. After a meeting with an old college friend, the freelancer (also named Mischa Berlinski) becomes captivated by a story his friend told him about an American-raised anthropologist serving a life sentence for murdering a Christian missionary. Berlinski, who previously had gotten by as a men's fashion and music critic for a Thai English-language daily, turns into a serious investigative reporter as he tries to piece together the events that led to Martiya van der Leun's suicide in the Chiang Mai prison. A reader doesn't have to have any interest in Christian missionary work, anthropology, or the hill tribes of Thailand to be riveted, but odds are you'll have a greater appreciation for all three – not to mention Berlinski's storytelling abilities – by the time you put "Fieldwork" down. Grade: A

Nineteen Minutes, by Jodi Picoult (Atria)

Nobody does "ripped from the headlines" better than Picoult ("My Sister's Keeper"), but the subject of her latest thriller is not for the tender of heart. One morning, Peter Houghton walks into high school with two pistols and two sawed-off shotguns, killing 10 people and wounding 19 more in 19 minutes flat. Picoult takes readers back and forth in time, showing how Peter grew from a bullied kindergartner into a mass murderer, and dealing with the aftermath for the survivors – particularly Josie Cormier, whose boyfriend was among the victims, and her mother, Alex, the Superior Court judge chosen to hear the trial. (In one of the novel's most flagrant disconnects with real life, Alex somehow doesn't think she needs to recuse herself.) After the bravura beginning, the novel loses some steam. Picoult tacks on a weakly written romance (probably to have something to write about besides tragedy), a contrived past between Alex and Peter's mother, and a twist at the end that readers absolutely will not see coming. But the biggest problem is that, despite a noble effort, Picoult isn't able to get inside the heads of Peter's horrorstruck parents. Grade: B–

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Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog, by Boris Akunin (Random House)

Father Brown meets Maria von Trapp in this intelligent, literary mystery by international bestseller Akunin ("The Winter Queen"). Sister Pelagia, whom her fondly exasperated bishop declares is "not a nun, but a walking disaster with freckles," has a crime-solver's eye unrivaled in theological circles since G.K. Chesterton's round-faced priest. In this first entry to the series, set in 19th-century Russia, Bishop Mitrofanii sends Sister Pelagia to his great-aunt's manor house to find out who's been poisoning her rare white bulldogs. On the way, the bespectacled nun stumbles over two headless corpses and becomes embroiled in a power struggle between an opportunistic inspector from the Holy Synod, her own bishop, and the governor of the province. Fans of Agatha Christie (in a homage to Miss Marple, Pelagia knits, badly) and Fyodor Dostoevsky will be equally charmed. Grade: A–

The Welsh Girl, by Peter Ho Davies (Sceptre)

After two acclaimed short-story collections, Davies now gives readers a finely rendered World War II romance set in north Wales. Teenage barmaid Esther Evans dreamed of escaping her small mountain village – until an English soldier raped her, leaving her pregnant. As Esther struggles to hide her secret, she's unexpectedly helped by the British, who set up a German POW camp right next door to the sheep farm owned by her nationalist dad. The prisoners cause a furor in the village, especially among the boys, who can't keep away from the camp. One of the Germans, an 18-year-old corporal named Karsten Simmering, believes he can only regain his honor by escaping. Bookshelves are already sagging with novels about World War II, but Davies' precise characterizations, emotional intelligence, and fluid writing easily make room for his "Welsh Girl." Grade: A–

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