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Books in brief

>BIOGRAPHY

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd; Nan A. Talese/Doubleday ($21.95)

When done well, the brief life gives its audience an intellectually plausible take on a famous person that's also fun to read.

Still, the form's chief advantage - its brevity - cannot help leaving key matters undeveloped. The busy but attentive reader will put it down plagued by the maddening itch of unanswered questions.

Peter Ackroyd, a historian, novelist and the author of the best Shakespeare biography I've found, is nothing if not readable and credible.

In this little book, he examines the life of Edgar Allan Poe to show why the author of "The Raven" and "The Fall of the House of Usher" still matters.

- McClatchy Newspapers

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>CHILDREN'S

One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky (illustrated by Matthew Trueman, Candlewick Press, $17.99).

In his youth, Charles Darwin was nicknamed "Gas" for his fondness for lab experiments. He hated medical school because he couldn't stand the sight of blood. Then he got so seasick aboard the HMS Beagle that he could eat nothing but raisins for days. These and other colorful details about the great scientist bring him to life in full living color in this marvelous picture biography published in time for the 200th anniversary of his birth. With a lively and humorous writing style, Lasky brilliantly tells the story of Darwin and how his curiosity and close observation of the natural world, his recording of the tiniest differences in beetles and barnacles, led to a theory of evolution that continues to rock the world. She presents the scientific information in a way that makes it accessible to young readers without ever condescending. (How interesting to include his ongoing arguments with the devoutly Christian captain of the Beagle, who became increasingly annoyed with his passenger's pronouncements.)

Trueman's full-page illustrations include marvelously expressive portraits, brightly colored dramatic paintings, and mixed media colleges including flowers and ferns.

- Jean Westmoore

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>ROMANCE

Dark of Night by Suzanne Brockmann; Ballantine Books ($25)

Once upon a time, Suzanne Brockmann wrote sweet, undiluted romances that were not tainted by suspense or intrigue. They were full of passion and tenderness, and brought tears to the eyes of romance readers.

Then she veered into military romance, and her first squad of Navy SEALs still managed to produce touching, tender stories that were heavy on romance.

But she's evolved away from books that are heavy on romance, to stories that focus more on suspense. She's also delved a bit into social commentary and burdened characters with some disturbing emotional baggage. As a result, her current novels are a bit more complex to read.

Having said that, her newest book about members of the Troubleshooters private security group - comprising mostly former SEALs, spys, etc. - has a bit more lighthearted romance than some of her more recent books.

"Dark of Night," revives recurring characters from those recent books, and pairs them up - Sophia with Dave, and Decker with Tracy.

The intrigue in this story focuses around Jimmy Nash (hero from "Flashpoint") whose death was faked to protect him and those close to him. Nash found himself involved with some sort of ultra-evil bad guys and his friends think it's a good way to keep him safe, and catch the bad guys.

- McClatchy Newspapers

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>BIOGRAPHY

Drood by Dan Simmons; Little, Brown and Co. ($26.99)

Everything seems skimpy these days. Things look pinched, narrow, watered down, washed out, choked off. So much seems to be shrinking: hope, energy, dollars, jobs. Even the horizon looks as if it were left in the dryer too long. We're trimming our sails, hedging our bets. Scrimping. Saving. Hunkering down.

Then along comes Dan Simmons and his new novel, "Drood," a big, hairy, smelly, loud, messy behemoth of a book, and suddenly, all that smallness, all that caution, looks silly. Simmons' richly imagined chronicle of the last days of Charles Dickens is being dropped on the world at a fortuitous time - just when we need to be bounced out of our doldrums. Toward that end, "Drood" is like a belch at a tea party: At first it seems rude and inappropriate, but then you realize that it's the first honest sign of life you've encountered in a good long while. It's refreshing. Invigorating.

- McClatchy Newspapers

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>FICTION

"The Angel Maker: A Novel," by Stefan Brijs, (Penguin, $15)

If you're mesmerized by the complexities of the Whittier, Calif., octuplets saga, then "The Angel Maker" might be the novel for you.

Stefan Brijs, 39, a former schoolteacher, is Belgian literature's rising star. "The Angel Maker," his fourth novel, was a best-seller there. (Contemporary Dutch and the Flemish in which Brijs writes are dialects of the same tongue.)

This book, which flavors the author's previous forays into magic realism with a dose of the Gothic, explores a world of science gone amok in a society whose religion - in this case, the conservative traditional Catholicism of small-town Flanders - offers no consolation.

- Los Angeles Times

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