You just can't trust characters anymore

A Tahitian tale, a neurological mystery, a cold case that warms up, interfaith clashes in the Middle Ages, and Rumpole's response to 9-11 are in this roundup of books.

It's getting so a reader can't trust anyone. The art of the double-cross is on impressive display in a series of new novels – including this year's National Book Award winner – whose settings range from modern California to medieval Sicily. (In that instance, one wishes Humphrey Bogart would come clanking in wearing chain mail to set the poor sap straight.)

In Nebraska, a young man struggles to recover from an accident that may not be as straightforward as it seems. And in London, one of fiction's most beloved barristers uncovers treachery while defending a man against terrorism charges. Pull up a chair, but try not to keep looking over your shoulder.

Breadfruit, by Célestine Vaite

Vaite's "Frangipani" was one of the most charming debut novels of 2006. In "Breadfruit," she rewinds the life of her heroine, Materena Mahi, to the night when the father of her children, Pito, proposes marriage. Unfortunately, he was drunk at the time, but Materena is unwilling to give up on her dream of a perfect wedding. The second novel isn't quite as delicious as the first, since it focuses on Materena's relationship with the least charming person in her life. And instead of the house cleaner's rules for living, Vaite entertains readers with Tahitian myths and Mahi family lore. She writes with such warmth that time spent with "the best listener in Tahiti" never is wasted. Grade: B+

The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers

Powers just won the National Book Award for this examination of memory and the fragility of self. In February 2002, Nebraskan Mark Schluter wakes up after an auto accident believing that everything dearest to him – his dog, his sister Karin, even his prefab home – has been replaced by a double for some nefarious government purpose. Mark's refusal to recognize her sparks an identity crisis for Karin.

In desperation, she writes to a famous neuroscientist, who can't resist the bait of the rare syndrome and packs his bags for Kearney, Nebraska. He's actually not the most famous flier to the small city: That honor belongs to the half-million cranes who make a pilgrimage each year and whose native American name gives the novel its title. There are long passages about neurology, and the sections involving the neuroscientist's career meltdown and Karin's love problems get overlong, but "The Echo Maker" is still absorbing and beautifully written. Grade: B+

Echo Park, by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch has a confession for a murder that's haunted him for 13 years, but the cold-case detective isn't too happy about it. A man accused of two other murders is willing to confess to killing Marie Gesto, who walked into a supermarket and was never seen again, in exchange for escaping the death penalty. Bosch is responsible for making sure that the confession is genuine (although he was convinced another man was responsible for the crime). Connelly is a reliable thriller writer with a prodigious output, but "Echo Park" feels too perfunctory to rank among his best. Grade: B–

The Ruby in Her Navel, by Barry Unsworth

Booker Prize-winner Unsworth travels back to 12th-century Sicily, when Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived uneasily together in close quarters. The parallels to world politics today would be blindingly obvious even to his narrator, Thurstan Beauchamp, a young Norman so dense that he would make Aunt Bertha's fruitcake seem as airy as a soufflé. Thurstan's blazing stupidity and self-absorption would be less of a problem had he not been handpicked for espionage work because of his supposed abilities. While on a diplomatic mission, Thurstan encounters two women – one a sweetheart from his childhood, the other a traveling dancer – and stumbles into a nasty conspiracy. Unsworth is clearly a writer of ability, but even devoted fans of historical fiction are likely to reach for their Latin dictionaries to look up the translation for "callow." Grade: C

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, by John Mortimer

The post-Sept. 11 world proves a little baffling to the poetry-spouting Old Bailey barrister. A dearth of cases means a life of de facto retirement, until Rumpole is asked to defend a Pakistani doctor against charges of terrorism. Dr. Mahmood Khan loves roast beef, the queen, and cricket and acts "like David Niven in some ancient film of understated wartime heroism," and Rumpole is hard-pressed to figure out if Khan is genuine, or if the "Rule Brittania!" routine is just an act. Mounting a defense proves a touch trickier than usual, since the state won't reveal the charges against the doctor – or who made the accusations. Things are even more ominous on the home front, where Hilda, aka She Who Must Be Obeyed, has embarked on her own memoirs. Grade: B

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