NOVEL

by Ian McEwan

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Saturday is a three-legged pony that's bound to slightly disappoint fans of McEwan's last novel, the thoroughbred champ Atonement. This time McEwan wants to tell us about brain surgery, the situation in Iraq and a petty criminal with revenge on his decaying mind, but he can't stitch it all together without the seams showing.

Neurosurgeon Henry Perowne enjoys a thriving practice and a happy marriage; he'd be a welcome guest at your dinner party, but McEwan pours so much rumination into him that few readers won't be aching for someone to come along and kick the plot into gear.

The man who does so is Baxter, a violent creep whose car Perowne scrapes as he's driving to a squash match. Baxter punches him and prepares to do worse, but the doctor has a trump: He pegs Baxter's tics and mood swings as the product of a terminal brain illness. By talking about the disorder he's diagnosed, Perowne manages to distract Baxter and escape.

It would be giving away too much to reveal that Baxter storms Perowne's house—if the twist weren't described on the book's jacket. That scene, though it comes too late, is expertly choreographed and bathed in dread. McEwan's sentences are perfect, and his novels are always powerful and intelligent. But never before has one felt a page too long.

MYSTERY

NOVEL

by Elizabeth George

CRITIC'S CHOICE

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"I'd very much like someone to explain the human race to me," says New Scotland Yard's acting superintendent Thomas Lynley. The mutilated bodies of mixed-race adolescent boys are being discovered throughout London, setting in motion for Lynley a journey to humanity's dark side. His slow progress frustrates his image-conscious boss, who wants to dispel any appearance of institutional racism. The pressure is on.

George's 13th Lynley mystery, Witness is a satisfying blend of suspense and psychological case study. The reader is afforded glimpses into the killer's mind, the twisted nature of which becomes clearer as the narrative unfolds. Weaving issues of race, gender, class and politics into her skillfully crafted prose, George creates a morally complex world that illuminates the ways in which everyone's motives are suspect—even our own.

NOVEL

by Elizabeth Gaffney

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Gaffney's boisterous debut novel is a love story, but also a love letter—to New York City. The romance between a German immigrant who calls himself Frank Harris and Beatrice O'Gamhna, an Irish girl gangster, develops in the Big Apple of the late 1800s, when the Brooklyn Bridge was under construction and running water was a novelty. Harris is a roustabout tending exotic animals at P.T. Barnum's American Museum when the building burns and he's accused of arson. With the help of her cronies, O'Gamhna forges a new identity for him. He disappears into the chaotic city, unaware he's caught up in a risky plot spun by Beatrice's gang.

Gaffney, an editor at the literary journal The Paris Review, never idealizes the past. Her New York, while a place of breathtaking possibility, is populated by prostitutes and pickpockets, and her settings include the home office of an abortionist who rinses her instruments in dishwater. A large cast of characters clogs the early pages, making it hard to follow the story initially. But ultimately this brash historical novel satisfies precisely because it is sprawling and teeming with people—like the city its author obviously adores.

NONFICTION

by James R. Gaines

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In 1747 Frederick the Great, the ruler of Prussia, summoned Johann Sebastian Bach to his palace and presented the composer this challenge: to improvise a six-part fugue on a deeply complex theme. At 62, Bach was a relic who had fallen into near obscurity, yet he produced the defiant Musical Offering as a response to the royal gambit. Evening's chapters alternate between Bach and Frederick, detailing their lives leading up to their meeting. Bach, who sired 20 offspring, embraced discipline, while Frederick endured public beatings from his own father, who forced the heir to witness the beheading of his friend (and perhaps lover). Gaines, a former managing editor of PEOPLE, has a deep understanding of music and an infectious zeal for narrative history. Examining the clash between Frederick and Bach as a symbol of the emerging era of reason, he has created a moving portrait of genius and human failure.

SPACE BETWEEN THE STARS: MY JOURNEY TO AN OPEN HEART by Deborah Santana, read by the author, with music by Carlos Santana. Married for 31 years to musician, the author narrates a moving memoir.

CARRIE by Stephen King, read by Sissy Spacek. The ultimate revenge fantasy, eerily and effectively voiced by the star who played the prom queen in the flick.

A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS: THE BAD BEGINNING by Lemony Snicket, read by Tim Curry and others. Slimy porridge, a nasty villain, a tragic fire—it's all here, delivered with deadpan perfection.

THE MERMAID CHAIR by Sue Monk Kidd, read by Eliza Foss. The latest family drama from the Secret Life of Bees author. You'll laugh, you'll cry.

LAUREN BACALL BY MYSELF AND THEN SOME read by the author. An updated version of her 1980 memoir, this is light on gossip, but that smoky alto mesmerizes.

  • Contributors:
  • Kyle Smith,
  • Barbara Smith-Berger,
  • Natalie Danford,
  • Bich Minh Nguyen.