Friday, February 22, 2008


It’s a cliché by now to note the rise of the Scottish thriller, and “ripped from the headlines” plots punctuate that “ka-chung” sound on “Law & Order” so often you’d think there’d be none left to fuel fiction writing. Still, among this month’s new releases are books from both those categories; whether they’ll transcend their genres remains to be seen. Also new this month: unnerving short stories and a book about a C.I.A. agent who just can’t stay out of trouble.

AND SOMETIMES WHY By Rebecca Johnson 303 pages. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $24.95.
At the start of “And Sometimes Why” Sophia and Darius McMartin are leading a semi-idyllic NPR kind of life — she works in development at a Los Angeles art museum, he’s an English professor at a university, and they have two daughters, Miranda, 18, and Helen, 16. But unknown to her parents, Helen has been sleeping with an older ne’er-do-well. And when one afternoon he runs his motorcycle, with Helen on the back, into an SUV, it breaks the family’s world into pieces. The repercussions of the accident drag in a cast that includes Harry Harlow, the host of a television game show that sounds eerily like Fox’s new “Moment of Truth”; Anton McDonald, an aspiring filmmaker; and a would-be porn star who calls herself Misty Moon. This is Rebecca Johnson’s first novel.

THE KONKANS By Tony D’Souza 308 pages. Harcourt. $25.
Like “Whiteman,” Tony D’Souza’s first novel, “The Konkans” has a whiff of memoir to it, and not much in the way of plot. The narrator, Francisco, is the child of an American mother and a father who comes from the Konkani people, a mostly Catholic ethnic group from India’s west coast. Denise and Lawrence meet and marry when she is a Peace Corps volunteer there, then emigrate to America. In their wake follow other family members, most significantly Lawrence’s younger brother Sam. Settling into the suburbs of Chicago, they confront the tangled relationships of race, class and especially family. When asked the stock questions about Hinduism, Sam, for one, is fond of saying, “I’m not that kind of Indian.” In the book’s most affecting moment, a black woman he has dated and left, tells him that he has lost sight of the real issue. “It’s true that I didn’t know what kind of Indian you were,” she says. “But what hurts me most is to know what kind of man.”

THE GHOST WAR By Alex Berenson383 pages. G .P. Putnam’s Sons. $24.95.
In his second spy thriller, Alex Berenson brings back John Wells, the C.I.A. agent hero of “The Faithful Spy,” which won a 2007 Edgar award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America. The Chinese are taking an increasingly aggressive line against the United States, while soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division have reported seeing foreign fighters helping the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan, and someone has blown the cover of the C.I.A.’s highest-placed mole in North Korea, sending him and the team dispatched to extract him to their deaths. It is up to Wells and his girlfriend, Jennifer Exley, also of the C.I.A., to make the connections between those events, in a race that takes Wells from the Hindu Kush to East Hampton, N.Y., to the Forbidden City in Beijing. The body — and psychic — count along the way is high, especially for Wells. “He doesn’t have friends,” as Jennifer explains at one point in the book. “The people he knows die at an unusually high rate.” Mr. Berenson is a reporter for The New York Times.

DANGEROUS LAUGHTER By Steven Millhauser 244 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.
In the title story of this collection, a group of bored suburban teenagers starts a game — “the object was to laugh longer and harder than anyone else, to maintain in yourself an uninterrupted state of explosive release” — that “began innocently and spread like a dark rumor.” (Things end badly.) In that story, and others, it is the propensity for things to get out of hand and the obsessions that take over his characters’ lives, that are Mr. Millhauser’s real terrain. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1996 novel, “Martin Dressler.”

SLIP OF THE KNIFE By Denise Mina 340 pages. Little, Brown & Company. $24.99.
In her latest Paddy Meehan novel, the Scottish thriller writer Denise Mina sets two stories in motion: A foreign reporter by the name of Terry Hewitt is murdered on a Glasgow back road in a killing that has the hallmarks of an I.R.A. hit. Meanwhile Callum Ogilvy, who murdered a toddler almost a decade ago — and whose case Paddy investigated back when she was a reporter — is about to get out of jail. Now Paddy is a columnist for The Daily News (“You wouldn’t know news if it punched you right on the nose,” as one of the Glasgow paper’s foot soldiers tells her), and the violence comes close to home.

A PERSON OF INTEREST By Susan Choi 356 pages. Viking. $24.95.
Dr. Lee is a math professor at an undistinguished Midwestern university, where a hotshot computer scientist named Hendley has been hired to bring intellectual cachet. Hendley is blown up by a Unabomber-type killer called the Brain Bomber, and not long after, Lee gets a mysterious letter from a man from his past. Soon Lee — a solitary, awkward man who is estranged from his only daughter — has become a “person of interest” for investigators in this novel of paranoia and isolation. (Reviewers have noted similarities to the case of Wen Ho Lee, who was accused in 1999 of stealing secrets from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and later pleaded guilty to improper handling of classified data.) “American Woman,” an earlier novel by Ms. Choi, was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize.

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