By Chang-Rae Lee
NOVEL

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Following two acclaimed novels featuring Asian-American protagonists (Native Speaker, A Gesture Life), Lee's third book has a surprising point of view. Narrator Jerry Battle is a 59-year-old Italian-American who enjoys flying his Cessna on short jaunts from his Long Island suburb. The beautiful descriptions of his solo flights set the tone and theme of the book, since Jerry is a man who has become disconnected from his family. His aging warhorse father is bitterly waiting out his days in a care facility. His son is expanding the family landscaping business a bit recklessly and living in a luxurious mini-mansion. Jerry's girlfriend of 20 years has recently left him, and even the happy engagement of his daughter brings the disturbing news that she has cancer.

There's drama galore in these moneyed towns, and Lee lays it out in graceful prose that charms the reader completely. Aloft is a pleasing book in nearly every respect, and a remarkably sensitive portrait of Jerry Battle. Fairly or unfairly, the territory Lee explores here invites comparisons to recent tours de force by Richard Ford and Jonathan Franzen, and even to works by masters like John Cheever and John Updike. That's difficult competition even for a writer as skilled and intelligent as Lee.

By Peter Robinson
THRILLER
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Get ready to wrangle some of the most slippery red herrings in detective fiction. Each time you think you're a step ahead of the author, Robinson jumps in with a jaw-dropping—and usually credible—twist.

Playing with Fire is the most accomplished of the Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks series. Banks and his partner and ex-lover, Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot, are assigned to sort out a series of arson attacks in Yorkshire, England. In the meantime Banks, a solid cop, tries to make sense of his feelings toward Annie and his ex-wife and her new baby, as Annie embarks on an affair with a smooth art-forgery expert. Along the arsonist's trail, the paths of these realistically flawed and interesting characters merge. Robinson is incapable of writing a dull sentence. Playing with Fire is so vivid that even those who aren't usually fans of procedural thrillers will feel their fingers burning as the pages fly.

By Leslie Silbert
MYSTERY

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In the 16th century, famed playwright Christopher Marlowe has a hush-hush day job, working undercover as Queen Elizabeth's royal spy. Fast-forward to New York City today, when a feisty, athletic young detective named Kate Morgan accidentally unravels the unsolved mystery of Marlowe's death.

Mystery buffs will devour this one, loaded as it is with spies, gadgets and stolen gemstones. These are all familiar ingredients, but Silbert, herself once a Renaissance scholar at Oxford and today a private investigator, also tosses in intriguing historical research about Shakespearean-era London and even a whiff of The Da Vinci Code—there's a rare manuscript locked away for centuries that destroys anyone unlucky enough to uncover its secret. Now and then, things get a tad far-fetched as we hop back and forth from the present to 1593, from England to Italy, Tunisia and the USA, and many characters are too sketchy to make an impression. But The Intelligencer has plenty of smarts.

By Brad Land
MEMOIR

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Talk about Hell Week. After deciding to join Kappa Sigma, his kid brother's fraternity at Clemson University, Land was forced to drink scalding hot beer, wash cups filled with chewed tobacco and do jumping jacks with other hapless pledges ("goats") while fellow Greeks lobbed footballs at them. Somehow he thought the abuse would help him get over a previous attack, in which he was beaten by two hitchhikers who stole his car. Instead it left him shattered and, when he quit, ostracized. "They all forget me and I can't forget them," he writes of his frat brothers. "I never existed." Goat is a heartfelt look at how violence can poison young men's lives, but his topic is a hoary one. After all the cautionary TV movies, Goat can't tell us much about hazing we don't already know: namely, that being ritually brutalized for the right to fit in isn't fun. Better to join the chess club.

Laci: Inside the Laci Peterson Murder, by PEOPLE L.A. correspondent Michael Fleeman, tells the heart-wrenching story surrounding the disappearance of the Modesto mother-to-be with the seemingly perfect husband. The book leads readers through the lives of Laci and Scott Peterson from their growing-up years to the tragic ending that would tear apart two families.

Peter Biskind

At the Sundance Film Festival, the buzz from Peter Biskind's book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film all but overshadowed the films. Biskind talked with People about down and dirty tricks.

ON HIS SOURCES One guy became so frightened during the interview [about possible repercussions from Miramax] that his teeth began chattering.

ON FAVORITE QUOTES IN THE BOOK [Oscar-winning director] Bernardo Bertolucci likens [Miramax co-chief] Harvey Weinstein to a "little Saddam Hussein of cinema" after Harvey cut Bertolucci's Little Buddha without consulting him.... I asked Harvey if he hit [an employee] and he said, "Well, I ripped his ID badge off" after he took another job.

ON MIRAMAX'S COLD MOUNTAIN'S NOT GETTING A BEST PICTURE OSCAR NOMINATION Maybe there was an element of payback. Perhaps voters pictured Harvey getting onstage to accept an Oscar, and that sticks in people's craw. Also there was an Internet campaign against it for shooting in Romania.

  • Contributors:
  • Jeremy Jackson,
  • Arion Berger,
  • Lisa Dierbeck,
  • J.D. Heyman,
  • Oliver Jones.