MEMOIR

By Ann Patchett

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Pale, sparrow-weight poet Lucy Grealy hurtles off the opening pages of Truth & Beauty like a meteorological force, pitching her 95 lbs. into the startled author's arms as they first meet in a dumpy Iowa duplex to begin life as grad-school roommates. "It was not a greeting as much as it was a claim," Patchett recalls. "She was staking out this spot on my chest as her own."

Grealy, who died of a drug overdose in '02, is brilliant and wild, a formidable talent and a dancer on tavern tables. Childhood cancer has left her with little jaw, few teeth and a poignant frailty (all documented in her own 1994 memoir, Autobiography of a Face). Patchett (author of Bel Canto) is hale enough to help carry this tornado of a friend for the next 20 years, across the heights and chasms of Grealy's writing career, romances and excruciating reconstructive surgeries.

Patchett's piquant remembrances—"It is amazingly easy to hail a taxi with a girl in your arms," she writes of ferrying Grealy after her 36th surgery—alternate with Grealy's own sometimes despondent, sometimes exuberant letters. "My favorite blue awning above some great little cafe," Grealy calls Patchett in one, "where the coffee is strong but milky and had real texture to it."

This is a loving testament to the work and reward of the best friendships, the kind where your arms can't distinguish burden from embrace.

MEMOIR

By E.L. Doctorow

CRITIC'S CHOICE

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If this book were a CD, it would be dubbed Doctorow's Greatest Hits. Newly sprung from the capacious imagination that produced Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, the five short masterpieces in Sweet Land Stories are pitch-perfect, the work of a virtuosic storyteller with enormous range. The misfits and desperados who populate these pages are as diverse as the landscape they inhabit: a murderess and her son in rural Illinois, a religious cultist in Kansas, a baby-snatching couple in California. What do they have in common? The dogged pursuit of their feverish dreams.

Doctorow doesn't write about characters so much as channel them. In "Jolene: A Life," his portrait of a woman who survives incest and a psych ward is eerily authentic. And in "Walter John Harmon," he captures a cuckolded husband's denial with heartbreaking conviction. Enlivened by taut prose and illuminated by an incisive understanding of human behavior, Sweet Land is deeply affecting.

SHORT STORIES

By Alexandra Fuller

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Reading books about Africa and war, and the people whose lives are inescapably broken by both, tends to fall onto the same to-do list as Watch More PBS and Eat More Fiber. Yet Fuller—who documented her childhood years in Africa in the fascinating 2002 memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight—writes so honestly and with such wit and heart that her work is addictive. Her latest is a suspenseful tale of her unexpected friendship with a man she calls K, a white African and Rhodesian war veteran. "He looked bullet-proof," she writes of her first impression of K, an articulate ex-soldier whose brutal past is counterbalanced by his emotional vulnerability. "He looked cathedral." Early in the book, the author's father cautions her against pursuing her interest in the perversely seductive K: "Curiosity scribbled [Rhodesian slang for 'killed'] the cat." Luckily for us, she ignored the warning.

NONFICTION

By Lincoln Child

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Eden Incorporated is a hush-hush computer dating service with a fee of $25,000 per person and more than 924,000 satisfied customers—give or take a few. When two of its "perfect" couples commit double suicide in quick succession, the empire's founders turn to Christopher Lash, a forensic psychologist whose life has been touched by tragedy. In this page-turning techno-thriller, the vulnerable Lash (whose marriage shattered after the FBI put him on the trail of a serial killer) is a compelling hero as he roots out the trouble in romantic paradise. Aside from creating flesh-and-blood characters, Child (author of Utopia) conquers the complexities of artificial intelligence—fueling the plot with material usually comprehensible only to technogeeks. And despite the sinister twists at Eden Inc., he leaves readers with the hope that, somewhere, there may be a perfect match for us all.

THRILLER

By Marian Keyes

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The three women in The Other Side of the Story by Marian Keyes (Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married) lead incredibly eventful lives: Gemma is juggling care of her abandoned mom (Dad's a cad) with her events-organizing career. Lily's a promising, but struggling writer and an ex-friend of Gemma's (one who fell for her boyfriend and had his baby to boot). Jojo's a va-va-voom cop turned London literary agent who reps Lily (and later, Gemma) and sleeps with her married employer. Keyes keeps the action moving briskly, and her writing style is gabby but addictive. The plot turns on questions including: Will Gemma's bounder dad return? Will Lily lose her ill-gotten man? And will Jojo go solo? Finding out means committing to 500 pages and stumbling over a few working-girl clichés ("She'd...never thought it would happen to her. 'It's the glass ceiling!' ") but—like along gossip—this frothy tale is all in good fun.

NOVEL

By Boris Akunin

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Ten corpses are discovered in a mansion in 19th-century Paris and a gold statuette of the Indian god Shiva is discarded nearby. Is there a connection? That's the question that dashing Russian sleuth Erast Fandorin, hero of Akunin's '03 hit The Winter Palace, pursues with the help of a nosy Paris police chief. In a splendidly atmospheric story set on the maiden voyage of the luxury ship Leviathan, the two neatly unravel the murders. The second in an ongoing series, this tale is as stylish as it is suspenseful.

MYSTERY

The Da Vinci Code Backlash

The Da Vinci Code,

Dan Brown's hit religious thriller, has sold millions of copies, but that doesn't mean all those readers are fans. The book's controversial portrayal of Jesus—in Brown's book Christ marries Mary Magdalene, has children and isn't declared divine until some 300 years after his death—has created a cottage industry of Christian rebuttals. "Documents from the 1st century show Jesus was regarded as divine," argues Professor Darrel Bock of the Dallas Theological Seminary, author of Breaking the Da Vinci Code. "And we have no evidence he was married."

But isn't Code just a novel? "Brown gives the impression that the fiction is fact," says Chicago pastor Erwin Lutzer, who added The Da Vinci Deception to the anti-Code canon. "It strikes at the heart of the Christian faith." Adds journalist Richard Abanes, author of The Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code: "It is terrifying to see someone so misrepresent truth and then have people believe it."

Brown's reaction to the flap? No comment. But his Web site notes that while his book is fiction, he thinks its ideas "have merit." Hollywood is behind him: The book has just been optioned for the screen by director Ron Howard. "I'm disappointed," says San Diego pastor Jim Garlow, coauthor of Cracking Da Vinci's Code. But not too worried. In a few years, Garlow says, it's the Bible that "will still be the bestseller."

  • Contributors:
  • Laura Italiano,
  • Rebecca Donner,
  • Michelle Tauber,
  • Rob Taub,
  • Moira Bailey,
  • Sean Gannon.