Book roundup

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman (William Morrow)

Charlie Nancy is an easily embarrassed London accountant in this sort-of sequel to Gaiman's "American Gods," winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards. Attending his father's funeral, Charlie discovers two disconcerting facts: 1) His dad was actually Anansi, an African trickster god; and 2) Charlie has a brother, Spider, who's inherited some of his dad's powers. When Spider comes to visit, he proceeds to seduce Charlie's fiancée and get Charlie fired from his (admittedly horrible) job. Then things start getting out of control. The genre-busting novel is very creative and very funny, two Gaiman specialties. Its sweep is less epic than "American Gods," but it works well on its own terms. Grade: A-

Eldest, by Christopher Paolini (Knopf)

To all aspiring fantasy writers: Resist the temptation to write Elvish poetry. Even Tolkien couldn't really pull it off. This has been a public service announcement from your neighborhood critic. Aside from a tendency to wax flowery (see note, above) and a sad lack of humor, Christopher Paolini largely delivers on the plot of his followup to the bestseller "Eragon," about a boy and his telepathic dragon. (In addition to Tolkien, Paolini owes a large debt to Anne McCaffrey.) The second installment opens three days after the dwarves' and rebels' victory over the forces of the evil King Galbatorix, and they don't even get a chance to bury their dead before the fighting breaks out again. Eragon heads for the elf stronghold to complete his training as a dragon rider. Meanwhile, Eragon's cousin Roran, in the strongest sequences of the book, tries to protect their home village from the beetle-like Ra'zac. The book is too long by about 200 pages, but Paolini has created a likable hero, and fantasy buffs should enjoy "Eldest" - even though they probably guessed the finale's "startling revelation" back in Book 1. Grade: C+

The English Teacher, by Lily King (Atlantic Monthly)

Thomas Hardy's lighthearted romp to the gallows, "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," serves as inspiration for Lily King's debut novel, "The English Teacher." The teacher of the title is Vida, a single mother who is teaching "Tess" to her high-school sophomores. Vida has just married Tom, a widower with three children. Her son, Peter, was delighted at the idea of being part of a normal family, but soon realizes his mother is careening further from "normal." In Peter, King has created a wonderfully sympathetic character, and the pleasure of meeting him is the best thing about the book. But ironically for a book that draws on Hardy, "The English Teacher" runs out of words too soon. King never gives Tom much reason for having married Vida, and it's even less clear why he would fight for the relationship. Still, you've got to have a soft spot for someone who can sum up a classic as follows: "'Everyone struggles with "Tess" at first,' Vida said. 'When do people start liking it?' 'Around page 416.' Amy flipped through the fat paperback. 'I knew it. The very last page.' " Grade: B

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon)

In this enjoyable follow up to "The Sunday Philosophy Club," a character remarks: "It was hard to make goodness - and good people - sound interesting. Yet the good were worthy of note, of course, because they battled and that battle was a great story, whereas the evil were evil because of moral laziness, or weakness, and that was ultimately a dull and uninteresting affair." Therein lies the charm of McCall Smith's writing: In his quiet, good-humored way, he makes goodness interesting. (Don't scoff: Even Milton had trouble with that one.) Scottish philosopher Isabel Dalhousie befriends a man who has just undergone a heart transplant and is troubled by visions. Meanwhile, she's still editing her journal on applied ethics and moonlighting as shopkeeper as a favor to her niece, Cat. (She's also tending to Cat's ex-boyfriend, Jamie, acting as confidant for the besotted musician.) As with his bestselling No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, the mystery is almost beside the point. Isabel's deductions provide McCall Smith with an opportunity to reflect on philosophy, the poems of Robert Burns, and Scotland. Grade: B+

Goodnight Nobody, by Jennifer Weiner (Atria)

Chick-lit queen Weiner ("In Her Shoes") tries her hand at mystery writing in her fourth novel. Kate Klein, mother of three toddlers, is bored out of her frizzy head in one of Connecticut's tonier suburbs, where all the other moms raise parenting to a full-contact sport without breaking a manicured nail. Then Kate finds the most Stepfordian of the lot in her kitchen with a knife in her back, and thinks, "Ooh, a hobby." As she tries to track down the killer, Kate discovers that the murdered woman was a ghostwriter for an Ann Coulter-like conservative and that she had hired a detective to track down several older men. And wouldn't ya know, said private eye just happens to be the man Kate fantasizes about daily. (Did we mention that her marriage isn't going so well?) Weiner is undeniably funny, and her sketches on motherhood will make you laugh. But neither the romance nor the mystery fully tracks. Weiner neatly deploys a school of red herrings, but the ending is so preposterous that it almost derails the entire novel. Grade: B-

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