Book Roundup

Reviewer Yvonne Zipp has read her fair share of unusual stories, but she's never come across a novel in which a flock of sheep solve a murder. Yet, 'Three Bags Full' is July's most entertaining read.

Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him, by Danielle Ganek (Viking)

Mia McMurray works as a "gallerina" in a so-so art gallery that becomes a nine-days-wonder after one of their artists dies on opening night. When Jeffrey Finelli's first show becomes his last, everyone is clamoring for one of his paintings, especially the giant masterpiece that gives the novel its clunky yet endearing title. Jeffrey's niece Lulu, the subject of the painting, becomes almost as sought after, and Mia has a ringside seat as Lulu becomes the darling of dealers, artists, and collectors who drop "30 million on a piece with the nonchalant air of a housewife grabbing a box of Honey Nut Cheerios at the Stop & Shop." Ganek offers a witty, intelligent look at a rarefied world for which most of us will never have the necessary entrance fee, and Mia, a would-be artist with bigger dreams than talent, makes a charming tour guide. Grade: B+

The Manny, by Holly Peterson (The Dial Press)

Somebody call the literary division of Child Protective Services. The trend of saddling chick lit's neurotic heroines with small fictional humans to care for is sucking the fun out of the genre. Take Holly Peterson's much-hyped debut, "The Manny," which attempts to stretch a Britney Spears punchline out to 350 pages. When the son of Jamie Whitfield, a TV news producer, has a meltdown, she hires a hunk to do "guy stuff" with him. (This is in addition to the female nanny, cook, and driver that she and her self-absorbed husband already employ. It goes without saying that all are minorities, and all are treated as faceless automatons who talk in pidgin English.) Peterson, a billionaire's daughter, knows her way around upper-class New York, but she seems to think that her heroine is a gutsy, down-to-earth sort who deserves a fairy-tale romance rather than the swift kick in the designer jeans readers will be itching to bestow. Reeking with entitlement, Jamie will annoy Latinos, reporters, feminists, working moms, stay-at-home moms, and pretty much anyone left in America's shrinking middle class. Grade: C–

Secret Asset, by Stella Rimington (Alfred A. Knopf)

There's a mole burrowing around MI5, and Liz Carlyle has been assigned the task of ferreting him (or her) out. Meanwhile, one of the operatives she brought into the fold, Sohail, has uncovered what looks like a terrorist cell operating out of an Islamic bookstore. Stella Rimington, the first female director general of Britain's MI5 intelligence bureau, has plenty of on-the-job experience, but "Secret Asset" remains merely workmanlike. Readers will be able to pick out who is the traitor and who is not long for this world long before Liz. Rimington, who retired in 1996, seems noticeably more comfortable with plot threads dealing with the mole, who was planted during the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, than with the Islamic threat. Grade: C+

Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman (Pantheon)

Dr. Impossible, master supervillain, is languishing in federal detention (for the 12th time) and taking stock of his life in the opening of Grossman's clever debut novel. "Once I wore a cape in public, and fought battles against men who could fly, who had metal skin, who could kill you with their eyes…. Now I have to wonder if there will be chocolate milk in the dispenser. And whether the smartest man in the world has done the smartest thing he could with his life." Grossman alternates between Dr. Impossible and the good guys, as voiced by Fatale, a cyborg with little memory of her life as a normal woman and mixed feelings about her state-of-the-art body. Obviously, the New Champions are going to have to foil Dr. Impossible before he takes over the world, but Grossman is having too much fun juggling origin stories to rush the plot. "The Incredibles" did the inner life of a superhero better and with more genuine emotion, but it would be churlish to root against a novel loaded with lines such as "I'd never fought someone with her own pinup calendar and herbal tea brand" and "Wearing a cape doesn't do much for your social life." Grade: B

Three Bags Full, by Leonie Swann (Doubleday)

Call it "Babe: The Detective Files." Shepherd George Glenn has been found dead in his pasture, and his sheep are determined to bring his killer to justice. Led by Miss Maple, the smartest sheep in Glennkill, and Othello, the black sheep of the flock, George's dedicated ovines head into the unsavory human world, turning up clues and all sorts of sheepy misunderstandings. When a pastor proclaims that "The Lord is a shepherd," for instance, the sheep are unimpressed. "A very bad shepherd. Much worse than George," says one sheep. Some readers are put off by talking animals, but "Three Bags Full" is well worth overcoming that prejudice. The only way I could have been more charmed is if Farmer Hoggett himself came by to read it out loud. Grade: A–

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