Gingerbread Friends by Jan Brett (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $17.99)
This sweetly upbeat reimagining of the familiar tale of the runaway cookie cleverly incorporates some elements of the original for a different, yet still satisfying story. Brett's signature elaborate watercolor paintings have an old-fashioned charm.
-- Jean Westmoore
Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes; Knopf ($24.95)
Julian Barnes' "Nothing to Be Frightened Of" is about something Barnes himself happens to be very frightened of, namely, death. Or, more particularly, the prospect of his own inevitable demise.
Its ostensibly grim subject notwithstanding, it is quite entertaining, studded with quotable lines, from his opening -- "I don't believe in God, but I miss Him" -- to his very funny meditation on "my last reader":
" ... I was about to make some authorial gesture of thanks and praise to the ultimate pair of eyes. ... But then logic kicked in: your last reader is, by definition, someone who doesn't recommend your books to anyone else. You bastard! Not good enough, eh?"
There's no trouble recommending this book. It's a delicious mix of personal reminiscence, family history, literary criticism -- "a novelist is someone who remembers nothing yet records and manipulates different versions of what he doesn't remember" -- and philosophical speculation.
Barnes' own philosophical outlook is severely circumscribed. He seems to have swallowed hook, line and sinker what is perhaps best described as mechanistic determinism: "Far from having a whip to crack, I am the very tip of the whip itself, and what is cracking me is a long and inevitable plait of genetic material which cannot be shrugged or fought off."
Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd (David Fickling Books, $16.99, 322 pages).
This extraordinary novel from a gifted author juxtaposes the experience of a 17-year-old Irish Catholic boy during the troubled 1980s in Ireland with the mysterious past of a "bog child" whose mummified body Fergus uncovers in a peat bog in the mountains. With spare but elegant prose, Dowd offers a vivid portrait of the Troubles in Ireland, with unsettling parallels from that long-ago time of the bog child, along with a memorable cast of characters, heart-stopping suspense, a touch of romance and a satisfying ending. Fergus is a most appealing hero as he rejects both his Catholic faith and IRA violence while struggling to deal with his conflicted feelings about his friendship with a British soldier and his beloved older brother's slow decline during a hunger strike in a British prison. Dowd died last year at 47 of cancer; her other fine novels for young readers include "A Swift Pure Cry" and "The London Eye Mystery."
-- Jean Westmoore
The Forever War by Dexter Filkins; Knopf ($23.95)
Dexter Filkins' book "The Forever War," his account of the conflicts he covered as a reporter in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a kaleidoscope of images and intensity, bizarre encounters, electrifying vignettes, graphic depictions of mayhem and death -- as well as fleeting moments of humanity in countries convulsed by violence. It is not a linear narrative. It is written in finely honed bursts of vibrant color that capture the peculiar culture of the war and echo the Vietnam classic "Dispatches" by Michael Herr.
Martin Luther once said that our greatest sin is our greatest strength. This would be true of "The Forever War." Its very power is its weakness. It is a raw and riveting account of violence: the violence done by occupation forces to Iraqis, and the violence meted out in return. But it fails to examine the slow drip of repression, the tiny and huge indignities of occupation that push Iraqis to become human bombs or descend into the murky underworld of insurgent groups.
Filkins begins by plunging us into the fighting in the assault on Fallujah by First Battalion, Eighth Marines. He works his way down deserted streets, ducking and scampering to avoid bursts of fire, and by the time he is done we have an intimate picture of the waste and brutality of industrial slaughter.