By Elliot Perlman
NOVEL

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This serious, searing character study set in Australia rotates through seven astonishingly intimate character studies revolving around one act by a charismatic but depressed former schoolteacher named Simon. Obsessed with his ex-girlfriend Anna, now married to a shallow stockbroker, he seeks to win back her attention in a moment of madness: He picks up her son from school without her permission. Simon's a dreamy idealist and doesn't harm the boy, but it's kidnapping all the same, and he goes to prison.

Novelist Perlman, a Melbourne lawyer, must be hugely commended for the excruciating depth to which he follows the conflicts that stem from Simon's mistake, and his writing is often piercing. But Simon, who might be the lost member of J.D. Salinger's Glass family of adorable philosophers, will strike some readers as less a fragile genius than a talky bore. Still, Perlman has a lot of talent, and this is a lot of novel: a love story, domestic drama and a courtroom thriller, most of it richly rewarding.

By Susan Jane Gilman
MEMOIR
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Growing up in a liberal family on New York's Upper West Side, Susan Jane Gilman wanted to be everything that her parents weren't: a movie star, a ballerina, a Catholic and, most of all, "exactly like everybody else." In her new memoir, Gilman retraces the steps she took to becoming a woman who—on the evidence of this appealing memoir—is not like anyone else at all. In brisk comic chapters that at moments recall David Sedaris, she describes her experiences as a grade-school fantasist lying her way through show-and-tell, and as an adolescent whose fantasies turned sharply toward Mick Jagger. Her takes on sex and work, love and friendship, mind and body are refreshing, and her personality engaging. Late in the book the tone darkens as her parents decide to get divorced, then brightens again as Gilman gets married (of course, in a pouffy dress) and moves to Switzerland. This memoir offers the pleasure of spending time in the company of an observant and vivid writer.

By Stella Rimington
THRILLER

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"In any campaign, the first stronghold that you have to occupy is your enemy's consciousness." Intelligence officer Liz Carlyle keeps this quote from the KGB's founder firmly in mind as she pursues a pair of terrorists through the British countryside. This insight sets Liz apart from her smooth, often condescending colleagues, and elevates At Risk as a thriller. Rimington, formerly director general of Britain's MIS intelligence agency, has written a suspense novel whose characters are as intriguing as the dangers they face.

The heroine's quarry—a young Brit trained in a mujahideen camp—is also a smart woman determined to prove herself in a masculine realm. With her Pakistani partner, the female turncoat is rushing to set off some cataclysm, though no one knows where they might strike. The psychological curiosity and attention to detail that has made Rimington a top spy also distinguishes her as an author: Readers are propelled by suspense, but each scene is so interesting that there's no temptation to skip pages.

By John Haskell
NOVEL

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It's a great premise—a man walks out of a convenience store and discovers that his wife, who had been waiting for him in the car, has vanished. Don't expect to understand what follows for a long, long time. In this first novel, the unnamed narrator, a magazine editor, acts as if he's in a dream—taking so long to call the police you could scream. When he finds a map left behind by his beloved he tries to track her down, but poker games and hitchhikers lure him off course. Only in the last 80 pages does this quirky, meandering story take off; then the depth of the narrator's loss becomes startlingly real and incalculably sad.

By Michael Crichton
THRILLER

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The Jurassic Park author's latest "techno-thriller" certainly delivers in the techno department. Crichton equips his action-figure characters with Bond-worthy man-toys including submersibles with potassium hydroxide scrubbers and hypersonic cavitation generators—everything but the transponder-equipped kitchen sink. But the hardware outshines the leaden plot, which involves an attempt by environmentalists trying to save the planet and is burdened by Crichton's disquisitions about global warming being a fraud. Padding for this 603-pager comes from graphs and pseudo-brainy dialogue ("I tested that hypothesis and found it heuristically valuable"). Scary? You bet.

The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln

Was Lincoln gay? In a new book the late psychologist C.A. Tripp claims he found evidence that outs the 16th President—but not everyone agrees. Here's what you need to know about the controversy.

TRIPP'S SMOKING GUNS •Young Abe spent four years sharing a bed with his friend Joshua Speed; he later shared beds with other men. •Lincoln once wrote a poem about men marrying each other. •The President was terrified of wedding Mary Todd; theirs was a stormy marriage. •Lincoln had black moods all his life, perhaps because of his repressed homosexuality.

THE COUNTER-ARGUMENTS •Philip Nobile, initially Tripp's coauthor on the book, now says Tripp fabricated evidence. •Historians say bed-sharing was common in frontier times because mattresses were a luxury. •Lincoln and Todd had four children. •Most scholars trace Lincoln's melancholy to the death of his first love, Ann Rutledge.

THE BOTTOM LINE Whether Honest Abe was living a lie is still in question.

Who couldn't use a New Year's makeover? A fresh crop of books can help you tame your closet, conquer debt, jump-start your career or shape that pesky unibrow.

REAL SIMPLE: THE ORGANIZED HOME Here are smart fixes for trouble spots including foyers, home offices and even storage rooms. Each chapter tackles a particular room and includes tips for arranging furniture and finding places for stuff you'd rather keep tucked away.

There are plenty of savvy tricks: Try using wax paper to lube a clothes pole so hangers slide more smoothly.

THE SUCCESS PRINCIPLES by Jack Canfield. Coauthor of Chicken Soup for the Soul, Canfield subtitles his book How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, and his 64 principles can be applied to career or personal goals. Chapter headings tell the story: Decide What You Want, Stay Focused on Your Core Genius, Be a Class Act.

TOTAL BEAUTY by Sarah Stacey and Josephine Fairley. A head-to-toe guide-book for the cosmetically aspirational. The authors road-test and rate cellulite creams, eye soothers and lip plumpers, cover the finer points of fuzz-busting and offer "life brighteners" for schlumpy days. ("Create a 'Happy Box' and fill it with uplifting letters and keepsakes.")

GOOD DEBT, BAD DEBT by JON HANSON. Deep down, you know the difference (low-interest mortgages: good; sky-high Visa bills: bad). But Hanson's bracing, snappily written manual ("Credit cards are the crack cocaine of the credit industry") just might help you live like you do.

I HATE THE GYM by Jessica Kaminsky. As sitcom writer Kaminsky figures it, there are plenty of reasons to avoid working out—and to find the humor in gym culture. Here, how to survive locker rooms and the "stark naked run-in with someone you barely know" and why you should avoid doing "extreme lunges in Short Shorts."

  • Contributors:
  • Kyle Smith,
  • Francine Prose,
  • Heidi Schmidt,
  • Anna Shapiro,
  • Michelle Green.