by Tony Hillerman

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It isn't easy writing about the same characters year after year, which is why so many murder-mystery series eventually become deadly dull. But Tony Hillerman, 79, is still wringing fresh life from his recurring characters Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee. They are Navajo Tribal Police on the reservation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

In Hillerman's 19th Leaphorn-Chee novel, the former is lured out of retirement when a relative of an old colleague is accused of stealing a diamond from a trading post. The crime seems simple enough—until it is revealed that the stolen stone came from a diamond-filled briefcase that disappeared in 1958, when the wealthy man who was carrying it died in a plane crash over the Grand Canyon. (The accident is based on a real-life disaster that resulted in the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration.) Where are the rest of the diamonds? In their search for an answer, Leaphorn and Chee become involved with an heiress, some murderous lawyers and even the Hopi Indian spirit of the dead.

Hillerman displays his trademark fusion of modern detection and Navajo mysticism, creating both a fascinating whodunit and a window into a rich culture that is foreign to many Americans. The book isn't among the very best in Hillerman's 34-year-old series (try Coyote Waits or A Thief of Time), but it's a worthy addition and, by any standard, a gem.

MEMOIR

by Patricia J. Williams

CRITIC'S CHOICE

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A professor of law and recipient of a MacArthur genius award, Williams is an intellectual whose perspective is panoramic. In these smart, funny essays, the 50-ish single mother and great-grand daughter of slaves writes not only about the "double consciousness" described by W.E.B. DuBois (a sense of the split between racial stereo types and one's true self), but also about mommy guilt, mood rings and the white conservatives who attack her politics at a dinner party. ( Two years later, she writes, "I am still coming up with snappy answers.") She also examines the frustrations of being a working mother—a partner at a friend's firm complains about women lawyers "breeding like rabbits"—and the peculiarities of interracial friendships. (Mystified by one another's hair, she and her best white friend agree that "it was inconceivable...that we had been friends for as long as we have.") Incisive and gently cranky, Williams is like a best friend melded with the professor who wowed you in college. This is a book you'll want to pass along to every bold woman you know.

NOVEL

by Mark Winegardner

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Writing the sequel to one of the all-time bestselling novels in publishing history is a tall order. Yet that is the task Winegardner faced after he was chosen by publisher Random House as the successor to the late Mario Puzo in 2003. The Godfather Returns picks up in 1955 (after the events of the first movie), when Michael Corleone struggles to maintain a fragile ceasefire between the warring crime families. He wants to legitimize the family and get out of the killing business, but to achieve this he has to leave a few bodies along the way.

Winegardner is a gifted storyteller who expands Puzo's plot artfully into the history of Michael's feud with his brother Fredo and the installation of a Mob-friendly, JFK-like President. But Mafia stories have moved on; today's wiseguys have therapists and SUVs, and the old codes and rituals seem quaint. Still, there is only one famiglia Corleone, and Winegardner fits in much better than Michael's now estranged wife, Kay, ever did.

NONFICTION

by Gretel Ehrlich

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What would happen if winter disappeared because of global warming? Ehrlich, a poet and naturalist, makes some startling claims in this solemn meditation. But if you believe that global warming is a nascent disaster, her projections will chill you to the bone.

Ehrlich travels nearly from South Pole to North to explore winter's importance. She uses freak examples—hermaphrodite polar bears have turned up in the Arctic and a palm tree recently sprouted in Switzerland—to argue that pollution is killing winter. Her book isn't science, and she doesn't provide much evidence for these contentions. But she does make you wonder whether your grandchildren will ever have the chance to make snow angels.

When not in Cassandra mode, Ehrlich reflects about the cold, its loneliness and isolation. She has more words for snow than the Eskimos, and she writes gorgeously about the mating calls of bearded seals. At times she has so much lyrical power that you'll be dreading spring.

BIOGRAPHY

An American Master
by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan

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Great artists often lead messy lives, and the Netherlands-born abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, who died in 1997, was no exception. But in this sensitive portrayal, gossip takes a backseat to a revealing psychological investigation. The authors are sympathetic in covering his early years in Rotterdam and his descent into alcoholism on Long Island in the '70s. But de Kooning becomes less endearing when his icy treatment of former lovers comes to the fore. Stevens and Swan, both art critics, depict the ugly details—during a fight de Kooning told his wife that she "could make Siberia out of anywhere"—with panache. Readers will get a feel for the seamier side of the art world as well as an illustration of de Kooning's hard-boiled charm.

NOVEL

by Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark

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Stealing the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree from a Vermont farm is a definite Noel no-no, but Packy Noonan, the Scrooge responsible, isn't just trying to steal Christmas. Before being shipped off to prison for bilking money from gullible investors such as lottery winner Opal Fogarty, he stowed $70 million in diamonds in the giant spruce.

This is the third collaboration for mother Mary and daughter Carol, who between them have published 35 novels. As in any Christmas tale, the naughty and nice get what they deserve as Opal goes sleuthing for answers along with a silly cast of supporting characters. But the plot is as musty as last year's tinsel, and the writing ranges from plodding to painful: "Benny, easily intimidated, cowered in the backseat. He had for gotten that Packy goes nuts when he's worried."

Once the domain of teens and Japanese commuters, these art-and-literature hybrids have gone mainstream. The top of the current crop includes haunting memoirs, political comedy and a pair of novellas for kids.

HARD TIME
When a high school prank ends in tragedy, a smart-mouthed teenager named Ethan Harrow is sentenced to prison in this witty serial. To survive in this den of addicts, predators and psychopaths, Harrow summons MacGyver-level resourcefulness—and previously untapped supernatural powers.

JANET & ME
Cartoonist Stan Mack's memoir of his longtime love and coauthor Janet Bode, who died of cancer in 1999, is poignant and powerful. His love for her shines through on every page.

BIRTH OF A NATION
From the creator of the comic strip The Boondocks (Aaron McGruder) and the writer-director of House Party (Reginald Hudlin), this satire centers on the chaos that erupts after the votes of predominantly black East St. Louis, III., are voided in a presidential election.

IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS
New Yorker Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the seminal graphic novel Maus, created the disturbing No Towers in response to the destruction of the World Trade Center near his home.

OWLY
A saucer-eyed owl given to exploits like harvesting nectar for migrating hummingbirds appeals to all ages in Andy Runton's charming novellas. Equally noteworthy are the expressive drawings and universal lessons of persistence, kindness and loyalty.—ANNE MARIE CRUZ

  • Contributors:
  • James Ireland Baker,
  • Michelle Green,
  • Peter Hyman,
  • Edward Nawotka,
  • Jonathan Durbin,
  • Amy Waldman.