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Books in brief


Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie; Random House, 240 pages ($25).

This marvelous novel from a master storyteller is an enchanting entertainment, an intricate tapestry of wordplay and wonder, a thrilling odyssey through a fantastic universe of talking bears, flying carpets, mythical beasts, quarreling divinities and vengeful spirits, structured with the levels and multiple lives of the video game universe. Here, Rushdie takes up the story of younger brother, Luka, from his previous novel, "Haroun and the Sea of Stories." Luka's father, the storyteller Rashid Khalifa (referred to as "the fabulous Shah of Blah"), has fallen asleep and the appearance of an ominous look-alike "Nobodaddy" figure sends Luka off on a dangerous quest to the Magic World to steal the Fire of Life to save his father's life.

This is a vividly imagined landscape where the action always points to the big questions of life, of time, of morality, of father-son bonds. The wordplay is at times funny and at times very pointed: "People wanted to feel good even when there wasn't that much to feel good about, and so the sadness factories had been shut down and turned into Obliviums, giant malls where everyone went to dance, shop, pretend and forget." There are sly references to literature, well-placed quotations from hymns. At one point the Egyptian god Ra speaks in hieroglyphs that translate as "You make my pants want to get up and dance."

Above all, this is an ode to the power of stories, as the "Nobodaddy" character observes: "Man is the Storytelling Animal and in stories are his identity, his meaning and his lifeblood. Do rats tell tales? Do porpoises have narrative purposes? Do elephants ele-phantize? You know as well as I do that they do not. Man alone burns with books."

-- Jean Westmoore



The Cypress House by Michael Koryta; Little Brown, 432 pages ($24.99)

Battle-weary soldiers trying to adjust to civilian life have been cropping up more frequently in mystery fiction.

Award-winning 28-year-old author Michael Koryta spins that theme into an enthralling novel that easily melds mystery fiction, the supernatural and just a touch of the old-fashioned Western and historical novels without losing the conventions of each genre. Yet "The Cypress House" is so grounded in reality that no plot turn or character rings false. "The Cypress House" works as a novel about post-war stress, small-town corruption and the dusty Great Depression.

As a Marine during World War I, Arlen Wagner discovered he knew which of his fellow soldiers would soon die because he could see smoke swirling in their eyes, visions of their bodies turning into skeletons. This ability has been a curse and a blessing, and isn't one he can discuss. In 1935, Wagner joins 33 other men, who are part of the Civilian Conservation Corps bound for Key West to build a bridge. When he starts to see smoke in the men's eyes, he knows that disaster awaits. But he can only convince Paul Brickhill, a 19-year-old mechanical genius, to get off the train with him. They end up at the Cypress House, a boarding house run by Rebecca Cady in a back-water Florida town. The town -- and Rebecca -- are ruled by a corrupt judge and sheriff who use the waterways for a variety of crimes. Like the best Western tales, it is up to Arlen and Paul to clean up the town.

As he did in last year's "So Cold the River," Koryta again shows his affinity for incorporating varied genres into a cohesive story and, along the way, stretching the boundaries of each.

-- McClatchy Newspapers



A Man in Uniform by Kate Taylor; Crown, 352 pages ($25)

Kate Taylor's portrait of honor and deception in turn-of-the-century Paris is alluring and suspenseful, an even greater testament to her skills as a writer when one considers that she draws her story from France's most notorious political scandal.

The outcome of the Dreyfus Affair has been dramatized in plays and films, including the Oscar-winning "The Life of Emile Zola" in 1937. Taylor, though, envisions the struggle to free an innocent man as a trigger for a French attorney to reconsider his own values.

Lawyer Francois Dubon enjoys a successful if boring practice, a dutiful wife and child, social prominence and a mistress he visits on his way home from the office. What he lacks is the moral conviction that had invigorated his life as a young man.

Shaking up his world is a widow, Madame Duhamel. A friend of the Dreyfus family -- or so she claims -- she beseeches Dubon to take on an appeal of the court-martial that has condemned French army officer Alfred Dreyfus to Devil's Island for espionage and treason.

Drawn deeper into the mystery -- is the Jewish army captain guilty after all or a victim of lies, indifference and anti-Semitism? -- Dubon must decide whether to risk all that he has to join the fight for Dreyfus' freedom. He begins to realize that truth is not as valued as reputation and appearance in Belle Epoque France.

The fate of Dreyfus is a historical fact, a question easily answered by a Google search. "A Man in Uniform" provides twists and turns fitting for a cozy mystery with an interesting historical setting. The charm of Taylor's novel lies in her seemingly effortless prose and plotting -- and her ability to make room for touches of subtle humor.

-- Associated Press