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Notable books

Notable Books | Four new novels reviewed by Susan Olasky

Stones

Using the musician Asaph as narrator, this novel offers a comprehensive tour of King David's long life; for instance, Gustafson covers David and Absalom's relationship in several chapters toward the end. The novel provides a good sense of what it meant to be king of the fledgling nation of Israel, and of the nearly constant fighting to which David and his mighty men were called. The downside is that by trying to cover David's entire life the book cannot go deeply into any particular event: It lacks emotional and dramatic high points. Abigail, who has the ear of narrator Asaph, is the wise woman at the center of the court.

The Apothecary's Daughter

Fans of historical romances will appreciate this novel by Julie Klassen. Set in early 19th-century England, when women were not allowed to be apothecaries (pharmacists), Lily labors at her father's side and supervises the apprentice, a nice but not very competent boy. She pines for her mother, who ran off long ago. When an opportunity arises for her to go to London and live with an affluent uncle and aunt, she goes, hoping to find her mother and maybe a rich husband. Her father's illness brings her back to her village, where she takes over the shop until trouble ensues. Klassen's book is full of nice period details, well-drawn characters, and an intriguing plot.

A Most Wanted Man

John le Carré's A Most Wanted Man shows how hatred kills good novels. Le Carré's Smiley trilogy of the 1970s-Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; Smiley's People-was so wondrous in nuanced intrigue that it's probably the best spy series ever. Once the Cold War ended, though, le Carré took on the United States as his enemy: His plots became simplistic, his characters stick figures, his endings predictable.

That's the case here. Le Carré is now 77, and it's not clear whether he's running on fumes or fuming so much about the Bush administration's approach to the war on terror that he's forgotten how to write well. In either case, skip this book.

The Returning

A husband who has been in prison for five years returns home to his family. He finds a broken marriage and only one of his three children, a teenage boy with Down syndrome, truly happy that he's home. The two daughters are both estranged from their dad, with the teen angry and acting out, and the younger shy with the man she doesn't remember. Holding the family together by his good cheer, childlike faith, and tension-breaking honesty is the son Billy.

The Returning is a well-written family story that explores the betrayals behind all this brokenness. It doesn't minimize the damage caused by sin or the difficulty in pursuing reconciliation-but its tone is always hopeful.

Spotlight

The New York Times recently reported on the results of a survey of 3,000 British parents that appeared on TheBabyWebsite.com: Parents are abandoning traditional Grimm and Andersen fairy tales as bedtime reading, finding them too scary or full of gender stereotypes to be suitable for children. "Fairy tales we no longer read": Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, The Gingerbread Man, Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Emperor's New Clothes.

The most popular bedtime book in England is a good one, Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969). A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh (1926) and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908) are also popular, but so is Aliens Love Underpants by Claire Freedman & Ben Cort (2007).

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