Books

updated 09/10/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/10/2007 01:00AM

A Master of Disaster
AN ARSONIST'S GUIDE TO WRITERS' HOMES IN NEW ENGLAND
by Brock Clarke |

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REVIEWED BY MICHELLE GREEN

CRITIC'S CHOICE

NOVEL

Sam Pulsifer, the accidental arsonist who is the narrator of Clarke's funny, profound fourth novel, calls himself a "bumbler." Just 18 when he manages to start an after-hours blaze in the Emily Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, Mass.—inadvertently killing a couple sporting on Dickinson's bed—he draws a firestorm of "scholarly hate mail" and 10 years in the slammer. Post-penitentiary, Sam undermines his marriage by spinning one lie too many—a mistake that sends him back to his parents' home, where a series of shocks lie in wait. Larded with grabby aphorisms ("fear and love might leave a man complacent, but jealousy will always get him out of the van"), memorable images and bittersweet epiphanies, Clarke's novel is an agile melding of faux-memoir and mystery. Spot-on timing gives it snap, and a rich sense of perversity—witness the scenes of drunken debauchery featuring the weirdly endearing Sam and his parents—lends texture. It's a seductive book with a payoff on every page.

The Reincarnationist
by M.J. Rose |

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REVIEWED BY SUE CORBETT

THRILLER

Photographer Josh Ryder has a baby stroller in his viewfinder when it explodes at an airport security checkpoint. The terrorist blast triggers a bizarre reaction: Suddenly Josh is channeling the past lives of two men—a 4th-century Roman priest in love with a vestal virgin and a Victorian-era New Yorker whose family deals in rare art. Seeking an explanation, Josh goes to work for a nonprofit that studies past-life memories. When archaeologists unearth a cache of ancient gems believed to prove the existence of reincarnation, Josh is inextricably drawn to the excavation site—in time to witness a theft and a murder. Rose's ninth novel has intricate plotting, erotic tension and a didn't-see-it-coming denouement. Readers transfixed by The Da Vinci Code's similar mix of art, religion and intrigue may get a case of déjà vu.

King's Gambit
by Paul Hoffman |

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN DURBIN

NON-FICTION

Chess has long been known as the game of kings, but according to journalist and former Encyclopaedia Britannica president Paul Hoffman, it also attracts models, madmen and malcontents. Take Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of chess's international governing body, who rules the semi-autonomous Russian province of Kalmykia and believes the game has extraterrestrial origins. The author's thorough study of the sport is rife with backstabbing, suicide and adultery. The sum is a story readers will find fascinating, even if the closest they've ever come to playing the game is checkers.

Hero
by Perry Moore |

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Y.A. NOVEL

Moore's compelling fiction debut is about Thom Creed, a likable teen who's dealing with some heavy issues. He's a fledgling superhero with a crippling crush on his hunky do-gooder idol, Uberman, and he can't tell anyone. His dad is a disgraced former hero himself, the two are pariahs in their hometown, and any mention of being gay and superpowered around the dinner table is blasphemous. But when Thom is offered a shot at joining the League (a heroes guild, sort of like SAG only with bigger muscles), he's forced to reconcile his sexuality, face his father's legacy, save the world and grow up—all at the same time. Being a teenager is much more taxing, apparently, when you're wearing tights.

The author, a producer of the Chronicles of Narnia film series, has a good grip on the problems teens face; as Thom navigates the politics of high school and the League, he discovers that what sets him apart is also what makes him strong. "I'm a firm believer that you have to create your own miracles," says Ruth, one of his teammates. "There's no pearly white gates with an open bar and all the Midori you can drink."

This is funny, touching stuff written for teens but engaging enough for adults. Moore's characters are enigmatic misfits whose struggles to belong are totally believable, whether or not they've got the ability to fly, light themselves on fire or see the future.

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