Page turners

Ordinary Heroes, by Scott Turow

In "Ordinary Heroes," a tale best described as Stephen Ambrose meets "Field of Dreams," Turow focuses on World War II's European theater, as related in a manuscript left by David Dubin, a recently deceased attorney and former courts-martial specialist.

Dubin's son, a journalist and self-described burned-out fatso, becomes obsessed with learning the untold story of how his father faced a prison sentence after pursuing a heroic American officer thought to have Soviet leanings. His research also leads to surprising discoveries about his parents' marriage.

Turow remains a reliable writer with a strong sense of plot, but some chapters here feel forced, connecting the dots in obvious ways. Dubin's lost manuscript, by contrast, proves engaging, though Turow steps on some sizable land mines here, too. Characters use "folderol" in casual conversation and a faux femme fatale lifts her skirt (yes, really) to articulate a philosophical point.

Dubin's account gains momentum in a series of shattering episodes including parachute jumps to concentration camps. Provocative scenes rebuke notions of glory: "The closest blast ... made my eyes throb in their sockets and squeezed my chest so hard I thought something was broken."

This conviction offsets verbal tics (Dubin becomes "Doo-bean"), further proof that "Ordinary Heroes" can overcome its burdens and garner a positive verdict. Grade B-
- Erik Spanberg

The Brontë Project, by Jennifer Vendever

Sara Frost is a Brontë professor in a world that prizes scholars of Princess Diana. Her career is stalled, and when her fiancé leaves her, she's left with an unshakable conviction: "Literature had ruined her life."

Vandever gets off some wickedly funny lines in her debut. Take Sara's parents, both therapists, who tried to snap her out of a childhood obsession with "Wuthering Heights": "Now, how could Cathy and Heathcliff resolve this problem by communicating their feelings before it leads to a fatality?... Could Heathcliff have worn a warmer coat?" And there's a feminist class on "Romeo and Juliet," whose reading of the play would probably leave even Shakespeare at a loss for words. That class is taught by the Diana scholar, Claire Vigee, a self-promotional wizard who's a combination of Camille Paglia and early-'90s Madonna.

But then Sara goes Hollywood, and Vandever abandons the academic satire. Instead of writing her way out of her misery, à la her hero Charlotte Brontë, Sara passively falls into a series of affairs with improbable men. She ends up living with a movie producer who thinks Brontë's life has all the makings of a feel-good movie, then heads for Europe for some muddled goings-on involving a "bed of dreams" and a Paris conference.

Vandever is to be commended for avoiding the de rigeur "and they all lived quirkily ever after" ending, but a reader can't help but feel that the "Project" stops just when Sara starts getting interesting. Grade B-
- Yvonne Zipp

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