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Gentlemen & Players, by Joanne Harris

Teacher Roy Straitley (dubbed Quasimodo by his students, since he looks like a gargoyle and lives in a bell tower) battles a school administration that wants to replace the Classics with computers. But the "obsolete" scholar is also the only person who can stop a saboteur determined to bring down St. Oswald's school. The pranks start out harmless - pilfered pens, missing class registers - but quickly escalate. Harris ("Chocolat") alternates chapters between Straitley and the school's nemesis - the only child of St. Oswald's old groundskeeper - slowly unfolding an old tragedy that created a deep hatred. I guessed the identity of the killer well before the end, but that didn't hamper my enjoyment. An exploration of British class structure and a wicked sense of humor are laced, like strychnine, throughout this battle of wits and wills. Grade: A-

Utterly Monkey, by Nick Laird

Danny Williams, reluctant lawyer, is in for a long weekend. His boss is sending him to Ulster, where the Northern Irish native is expected to help close down one of his homeland's largest employers; and an old friend has just shown up at his London flat, on the run and with £50,000 of someone else's money. But that's mostly noise; the real subject of poet Nick Laird's American debut is male friendship - the bond between blokes that survives fistfights and extremely questionable life choices. Funny but foul-mouthed (the title is derived from a raunchy anecdote), the novel moves fast enough that readers won't notice its flaws - such as Danny's relationship with an improbably beautiful and impossibly forgiving co-worker - until later. Grade: B

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