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Notable books

Notable Books | Four recent novels reviewed by Susan Olasky

Issue: "GOP idea man," May 22, 2010

A Night Too Dark

Readers of these pages know that I usually review books I like. Life is too short to read books that are awful. Sometimes, though, I read a book that I mostly like-but there are elements that make me squeamish. Dana Stabenow's Alaska-based mysteries belong in that category. She wonderfully describes life in a bush village. Her colorful cast of characters includes natives and Park rats who may not all be solid citizens, but they make the place interesting. Stabenow crafts intriguing plots-this one involves a gold mine-­generated by the economic and social pressures of living on an extreme frontier. So what's not to like? A semi-explicit sex scene and a couple of obscenity-laden pages.

Noah's Compass

Anne Tyler's latest novel features a 60-year-old man who has been downsized out of his teaching job. Twice married (his first wife committed suicide and his second wife divorced him), he seems to be a bewildered observer of his own life. To save money he moves to a seedier apartment. On his first night there, he goes to bed only to wake up in the hospital with no memory of what happened. Tyler paints a portrait of an isolated man whose expectations have withered. What happens next is like watching Ezekiel's dry bones come to life, as the protagonist interacts with his messy family and a young, awkward woman.

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag

Bradley's series takes place in 1950 and features precocious 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, daughter of an absent-minded, nearly broke, British gentleman. Motherless Flavia roams freely through the village and countryside, where she runs into a traveling puppet showman and his companion. The vicar persuades them to put on a show for the village, but when the puppeteer ends up dead, it is curious Flavia, with her chemistry fascination and childlike unsophistication, who solves the case. Bradley hits comic notes and poignant ones in this wonderful novel, the second in the series that began with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.

A Gate at the Stairs

The novel takes place in a Midwest college town soon after 9/11, a fact that sets an early uneasy tone and assumes more importance by book's end. Narrator Tassie is 20 when the events unfold but in her mid-20s when she tells the story of being a college student and working as a nanny for a family that adopted a mix-raced daughter. It's clear from the beginning that something bad is going to happen-and it does. Moore establishes an edgy mood and characters who hunger for something they cannot have. She has tantalizing references to God and funny scenes, characterized by clever word play. Yes, there's some sex and language. I finished the book and wanted to ask if Moore had reason for hope.

Spotlight

A charity shop run by Oxfam received a donation of rare books from an anonymous donor. The British newspaper, The Independent, reported that the book, A Trip to the Highlands of Viti Levu, published in 1882, sold at auction for $57,000 (£37,200). Did the donor know the book was so valuable? We'll probably never know, but it makes me happy that treasures are still to be found in thrift stores, if an eagle-eyed clerk doesn't spot it first (as happened in this story).

The self-published book was an account of a trip by two brothers in search of a long-lost third brother. The last they had heard of him, he was planting coffee on Fiji, and they found him on the island of Viti Levu. The brothers recorded their adventures, included many photographs of Fijians, and published several copies. That's encouraging news for self-published authors in our day. Perhaps collectors will be bidding small fortunes on their books 100 years from now.

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