Bright lights, big cities

Urban landscapes play a big role in this month's five book roundup.

Sometimes, a writer's most iconic character isn't a person; it's a city. Take Edith Wharton's New York, Charles Dickens's London … or James Lee Burke's New Orleans.

In his 16th Dave Robicheaux novel, the acclaimed mystery writer howls a furious, poetic eulogy to his beloved city, and rails against the country that let it down. Though not as pronounced as with Burke, urban landscapes rise above mere setting in all the books in this month's roundup.

Characters cavort among the wealthy playgrounds of New York (or press their noses to the glass as hard as their credit limits will allow), while the liberal intelligentsia of sophisticated Copenhagen finds their ideals might not be built as solidly as the furniture at IKEA.

Confessions of a Wall Street Shoeshine Boy, by Doug Stumpf (HarperCollins)

Even a high-gloss finish can't hide the cheap materials of this would-be "Bonfire of the Vanities." Gil, a Brazilian-born immigrant, makes a living shining the shoes of some of New York's wealthiest. When a janitor friend is fired for overhearing a phone call, Gil turns to a magazine writer for help. The novel purports to be the story of the scoop that got away, with the narrative switching between Gil and Greg, but the structure doesn't serve the plot, and both Stumpf and Greg seem to be condescending to Gil. (Having Gil naively idolize almost every white character doesn't help.) With his overreliance on profanity, Stumpf is trying for early Mamet; unfortunately, the result feels more like stale frat boy. But under all the sex talk, he does engage in serious questions about basic decency, and the level of moral bankruptcy among the well-heeled traders will have readers pulling their money out of mutual funds and stuffing it under a mattress. Grade: C

The Exception, by Christian Jungersen (translated by Anna Paterson) (Doubleday)

What distinguishes a war criminal from the idealists who spend their days chronicling his activities? You'd think the answer would be simple, but the line gets blurred as office politics becomes a breeding ground for cruelty in Jungersen's intelligent, empathetic novel. Iben and Malene are best friends who work at a Copenhagen think tank on genocide. Ten years older, research librarian Anne-Lise feels ostracized by the younger women, even before both receive e-mail death threats from Evidence points to a Serbian war criminal, but Iben and Malene wonder if Anne-Lise isn't behind the attacks. Part psychological thriller, part a female version of "In the Company of Men," "The Exception" brilliantly probes the self-justifications and callousness that allow evil a foothold in civilized societies. Grade: A

Free Food for Millionaires, by Min Jin Lee (Warner)

After four years at Princeton, Casey Han has picked up, in addition to her magna cum laude in economics, "a refined diction, an enviable golf handicap, wealthy friends, a popular white boyfriend, an agnostic's closeted passion for reading the Bible… But she had no job and a number of bad habits." So when her Korean immigrant father beats her and kicks her out of the house, Casey finds herself adrift with only her credit card to support her. Big and crowded with characters, Lee's highly readable debut novel looks at the cultural pulls on two generations of Korean-Americans. While she reads "Middlemarch" compulsively, Casey has less in common with idealist Dorothea Brooke than with "Vanity Fair's" Becky Sharp in her determination to sample a life she can't afford. Grade: B

The Late Bloomer's Revolution, by Amy Cohen (Hyperion)

New York dating columnist Cohen's memoir offers an antidote to readers who have overdosed on chick lit. In one year, she loses her mother, her job, her live-in boyfriend, and her looks (to a psychosomatic rash). "I'd lost everything that I thought made me who I was, and what was I left with? I had no idea. It was almost like a bad science-fiction movie where you have no face or identifying characteristics." Cohen is a master of self-deprecating humor: Take her opening essay, where she and her mother travel to Prague, only to be picked up by a gorgeous doctor (Jewish, no less). Cohen is initially delighted, until she realizes that Dr. Right is flirting with her mom, not her. While amusing, the essays never quite attain a larger arc, but readers will enjoy keeping the dating columnist company as she learns to ride a bike and relax inside her own skin. Grade: B-

The Tin Roof Blowdown, by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster)

Burke, clearly still grieving for New Orleans, uses the aftermath of hurricane Katrina to spin out a hard-boiled tale of sin and redemption. During the chaos and looting, four small-time thugs take a crowbar to a mansion, literally pulling cash out of the walls. Unfortunately for them, the home belonged to the city's most notorious gangster – although two of them don't have to worry about that for long. Det. Dave Robicheaux is trying to find the surviving looter before anyone else, believing he holds the answer to what became of a beloved priest who disappeared while trying to rescue parishioners trapped by the flood. The strength of "Blowdown" comes from Burke's detailing of the destruction of New Orleans. He uses a combination of journalistic precision and raw fury to detail how "in one night, the city [was] reduced to the technological level of the Middle Ages." Grade: B+

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