Book roundup

Reviews of novels from Booker Prize winner John Banville, Orange Prize winner Lionel Shriver, and Swedish Crime Writers' Academy Prize winner Håkan Nesser.

Body of Lies, by David Ignatius (W.W. Norton)

Ignatius's spy novel is at least the third thriller in four years to boast the same title, but in most other respects it's happily original. The body in question is part of an elaborate plot concocted by CIA agent David Ferris. Ferris, a former journalist who nearly lost his leg in Iraq, is determined to stop a spate of suicide bombings riddling Europe, and that means taking out a shadowy figure known as Suleiman. Armchair espionage experts will savor the detail with which Ignatius, himself a former journalist, writes about America's intelligence operations, including the less savory aspects of the war on terror. However, as seems par for the course with this genre, the female characters are underwritten, and the romantic scenes are just painful. Grade: B

Christine Falls, by Benjamin Black (Henry Holt)

Irish pathologist Quirke finds his morgue "cozy" and is more at home with the dead than the living. That assessment is unlikely to change after he finds his brother-in-law, a successful obstetrician, doctoring the file of a dead woman named Christine Falls. As Quirke tries to find out what happened to Christine, he uncovers a transcontinental plot involving shady millionaires, the Catholic Church, and his own relations. John Banville's first foray into crime fiction is a happy one: the genre rules keep the plot whirring along smoothly, and Banville's trademark prose helps illuminate his noir world. I'm not sure why he bothered with a nom de plume, since the melancholy yet elegant "Christine Falls" hardly qualifies as slumming it for the Booker Prize winner. Grade: B+

Petropolis, by Anya Ulinich (Viking)

Since her dad defected to the United States, Sasha Goldberg may be the only biracial Jew living in Asbestos 2, a town in Siberia. The chubby teenager comes of age with a vengeance in Ulinich's funny, fiery debut novel. At 14, Sasha attends art school, falls in love with a boy living in a cement pipe, and gets pregnant. (Her mother raises the baby, determined that Sasha continue her education.) By 16, she's headed for Phoenix as a mail-order bride. By 18, she's living as a "pet Soviet Jew" in the home of a Chicago family and is determined to find the father who abandoned her. "Petropolis," which takes its title from a poem by Osip Mandelstam, stutters a little as Ulinich jumps through time, but it's as bursting with life as its unforgettable heroine. Grade: A–

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver (Harper Collins)

Like Sleeping Beauty, Irina McGovern's life pivots around a kiss. The 40-something children's book illustrator, who has a safe life with her boyfriend, takes a family friend out for his birthday. They get high and end up kissing … or do they? Orange Prize-winner Shriver borrows a page from the 1990s movie "Sliding Doors," and gives her heroine two alternate realities, unfolding parallel to each other. In one scenario, Irina kisses Ramsey, a professional snooker player, and leaves her boyfriend for him. In the other, she faces down temptation and returns to Lawrence, a terrorism expert at a London think tank. Neither man would ever be crowned Prince Charming, and when Irina is with one, she longs for the other. Her dithering ceases to be charming, and a reader wishes she'd chuck them both. Still, everyone likes to fantasize about "what if," and Shriver teases out every detail, drawing the plots together at the end. It can be fascinating to watch the same events replayed with a different leading man, but the simultaneous stories ultimately prove slow going. Grade: B–

The Return by Håkan Nesser (Pantheon)

Swedish writer Nesser is both a prizewinner and an international bestseller, but readers might not want to start with "The Return," since the book has minimal characterization and assumes a familiarity with the series that can be confusing. This time around, Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, who with his irascibility and love of classical music will remind fans of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, is directing the investigation from his hospital bed (shades of Josephine Tey's classic, "Daughter of Time"). But being flat on his back only slows him down a little. A girl has discovered a headless corpse, and the body belongs to a double murderer who was recently released from prison. Van Veeteren and his detectives find themselves faced with two propositions: Either someone wanted revenge or an innocent man served 24 years for crimes he didn't commit, only to become the real murderer's latest victim. Grade: C+

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