By Chuck Palahniuk

Among sick puppies, Palahniuk is the top dog. After all, this is the man who commended terrorism as a cure for the blahs in Fight Club. In his latest twisted fable, a real estate broker sells (and resells, and re-resells) haunted houses; her companion is a reporter who discovers an African lullaby that kills anyone he sings it to—even if he just thinks about it. Woe to those who jostle him on the street.

With a violent sense of humor and an ingenious imagination, Palahniuk is a cross between Eminem and Philip K. Dick. His jabs at consumerism are as well-aimed as ever, but like some of his other books Lullaby ends by tap-dancing in its own gore. Palahniuk has said that his grandfather killed his grandmother before committing suicide, and that his father was later murdered; rage tends to snap the leash of his satire. He also repeats gags: The first guy who's described as being so boring that his computer password is "password" makes us laugh; the third one doesn't. Still, this is a unique talent. (Doubleday, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Bold black comedy, but too bitter for most

By Sandra Cisneros
Reviewed by Julie K.L. Dam

Though she's best known for her 1984 novel The House on Mango Street, a campus favorite, let it be known that Sandra Cisneros is first and foremost a poet. At the heart of her second novel--the loosely autobiographical, fully spellbinding Caramelo--are the rhythms of life and love, caught in prose that bursts upon the senses. As the three generations of the Reyes family journey between Mexico and the U.S., the most mundane of scenes springs to life: On an Acapulco holiday, "all the smells swirl together. The old woman smell of Catita the same smell as the steamy dishcloth that holds the hot corn tortillas. The sleepy land breeze of rotten bananas and rotten flowers. The curly wind from the ocean that smells of tears."

Skipping between narrative and dialogue, truth and imagination, Cisneros's young heroine Lala unravels her family history: the winding paths that brought together the Little Grandfather and the Awful Grandmother, and her bickering mom and dad, then dovetailed into her own. "You're the author of the telenovela of your life all right," she notes. "Comedy or tragedy? Choose."

Caramelo gives us plenty of both. "Tell me a story, even if it's a lie," Cisneros says in her epigraph. May she never lose that craving. (Knopf, $24)

Bottom Line: Rich and bittersweet

same smell as the steamy dishcloth that holds the hot corn tortillas. The sleepy land breeze of rotten bananas and rotten flowers. The curly wind from the ocean that smells of tears."

Skipping between narrative and dialogue, truth and imagination, Cisneros's young heroine Lala unravels her family history: the winding paths that brought together the Little Grandfather and the Awful Grandmother, and her bickering mom and dad, then dovetailed into her own. "You're the author of the telenovela of your life all right," she notes. "Comedy or tragedy? Choose."

Caramelo gives us plenty of both. "Tell me a story, even if it's a lie," Cisneros says in her epigraph. May she never lose that craving. (Knopf, $24)

Bottom Line: Rich and bittersweet

By Michael Chabon

What if the fate of everything depended on a baseball game between supernatural villains and a race of kindly, hobbit-like little people? And what if that match in turn depended on an 11-year-old boy who hates baseball and considers himself the most untalented player in the history of the game? These questions will keep kids paging through this first novel for young adults by Chabon, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Set on an island in Puget Sound where it rains constantly except in the one sunny corner for which the novel is named, Summerland involves us in the fates of the unathletic, sympathetic kid Ethan Feld (whose companions include a talking fox and a 100-year-old baseball scout); his father, a designer of dirigibles; and Ethan's tomboy buddy Jennifer T.

Chabon—who explores issues of love and loss when he isn't explaining how wee folk secretly control the world—scores plenty of runs in the setup and again at the end, when Ethan becomes the hero that the fairies know he can be. But like most sluggers, Chabon strikes out a lot too, mainly in the book's disjointed midsection. (Hyperion, $22.95)

Bottom Line: Hit or miss

By Robert B. Parker
Page-turner of the week

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A psychiatrist goes nuts in the third novel in Parker's Sunny Randall mystery series. Randall, a sexy shamus who dishes out put-downs while sipping Cosmopolitans, has little use for the niceties; she wields a double-barreled shotgun and hops into bed with a Hollywood agent on the first date. This time Randall plays bodyguard to Melanie Joan Hall, a nervous author of high-end bodice rippers who is being stalked by her creepy psychiatrist ex-husband, Dr. John Melvin, during her big-bucks book tour.

Melvin is canny enough to cover his tracks, so Randall goes undercover as a patient of Melvin's, only to stumble upon some insights about her own emotional baggage. Randall also discovers that the bad shrink has been raping his female patients under the guise of establishing trust. Parker's crackling tough-gal dialogue backs a story with plenty of intrigue and suspense. Minor characters add flavor to the stew, especially Spike, Randall's gay pal, who can floor a foe with a right hook or a one-liner. The 37th mystery from Parker zips by more quickly than a 50-minute hour on the couch. (Putnam, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Dandy Rap

By Zadie Smith

British writer Zadie Smith was only 25 in 2000 when her stunning debut novel, White Teeth, made both bestseller and critics' Top 10 lists. Unfortunately, her second effort falls flat.

Alex-Li Tandem, an impulsive, self-destructive 27-year-old Englishman born of a Chinese father (who died when Alex was 12) and a Jewish mother, makes his living selling celebrity autographs. After a three-day acid trip, he discovers he has totaled his car and nearly killed his girlfriend Esther but also somehow come up with the Holy Grail of star signatures, that of '50s B-movie actress Kitty Alexander. Did someone mail it to him or did he forge it himself in a deluded moment? Dumping Esther, Alex tracks the mysterious and valuable "Kitty" to New York City.

Smith hits on some funny ideas—on a bender, Alex drinks alphabetically, starting with absinthe and making it as far as muscadet—but the point of the novel seems as scattered as Alex's brain. Smith's research, for instance, turns up lots of plot-stopping minutiae about Judaism, to little effect. The world of the autograph hound she depicts is littered with obsessive chasers of celebrity. The Autograph Man is a similarly empty pursuit. (Random House, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Literary wunderkind hits a sophomore slump

By Alan Furst

Cynical antihero meets beautiful woman in occupied territory during World War II, and the Nazis had better stay on their toes. Furst's bestseller is a variation on Casablanca but with too much plot and too little feeling.

In 1940 Paris, Russian writer Ilya Serebin edits a literary magazine for Russian émigrés. On a boat trip to Istanbul he meets the married Frenchwoman Marie-Galante, who seduces him first into her bed, then into an ill-disciplined gaggle of spies unified only by their hatred of Germany. As Serebin wanders from Istanbul to Paris to Bucharest, Romania, he becomes a major figure in a plan to sabotage the Nazis' exploitation of Romanian oil.

Moving around Europe like a knight on a chessboard, Serebin encounters dozens of characters. It's easy to confuse them, and Furst's stylized murk seeps into the plotline as well, effectively evoking the fog of war but also limiting the reader's emotional involvement. The final, desultory action sequence relies on such miraculous escapes and absurdly bad marksmanship by the villains that you may not care whether Serebin survives. (Random House, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Bloodless

  • Contributors:
  • Kyle Smith,
  • Julie K.L Dam,
  • Francine Prose,
  • Peter Hyman,
  • Erica Sanders,
  • Ralph Novak.