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Books in brief


Cinder by Marissa Meyer; Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan; 400 pages, $17.99 (Ages 12 and up)

There's an orphan, an evil stepmother, a nasty stepsister, a prince and a ball, but this thrilling futuristic update of the Cinderella fairy tale is set in New Beijing, a city under threat from a deadly leutomosis plague, and Cinder is a smart 16-year-old cyborg and the best mechanic in the kingdom. As the book begins, Cinder is toiling at her mechanic's booth in the market square, attaching her new cybernetic foot, when she meets Prince Kai, who asks her to fix his broken android before the annual ball. As a cyborg, Cinder is considered a lesser being, and she conceals her cyborg status from the prince. When Cinder's beloved stepsister Peony falls ill with the plague, her mother volunteers Cinder as an experimental subject for a cure, considered a death sentence. In the process, Cinder finds a surprising ally, falls in love with the prince, and stumbles onto a plot that threatens the future of Earth itself, even as she learns surprising information about her early life. In this first of four books in "The Lunar Chronicles," Meyer has crafted a fascinatingly complex futuristic universe, set it against a thrilling political backdrop and filled it with marvelous characters, led by its unforgettable heroine. The parallels to the Cinderella story are brilliantly done, whether it be robotic foot standing in for the glass slipper, an android as fairy godmother or a rusting relic of a gasoline-powered car as the coach. Future installments of this thrilling new series will be "Scarlet" (inspired by Little Red Riding Hood), "Cress" (inspired by Rapunzel) and "Winter" (inspired by Snow White).

-- Jean Westmoore


Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand, Minotaur ($23.99)

Elizabeth Hand's Cass Neary could make Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander look like a suburban housewife. OK, that's an exaggeration, but Cass, a "burned-out underachiever" photographer, is more asocial than Lisbeth.

For 30 years, Cass has drifted through life, spending "too much time alone, skating on alcohol and speed, not noticing the ice beneath me was rotten and the water killing cold." Her only success was photographing punk rockers in the late 1970s, and she misses the career she might have had. Yet Hand makes the "rage-filled" Cass not just sympathetic but oddly appealing and worth rooting for in the exciting "Available Dark."

A postcard from Cass' high school boyfriend coincides with a lucrative job offer from a stranger who wants her to fly to Helsinki to view photos he is thinking of buying from a fashion photographer and art collector.

Broke and eager to leave New York, the world-weary Cass agrees to evaluate the collection of photos that are connected to grisly crimes and to Scandinavian legends. Cass is overwhelmed by the photographer's technique. But the photographer is killed before she can complete the job and, believing she is the next target, Cass flees to Iceland. In Reykjavik, Cass finds clues that connect the murdered photographer with a Scandinavian black metal cult.

Cass, introduced in Hand's compelling "Generation Loss" (2007), is forever society's outsider, a borderline sociopath but with an undeniable charisma.

-- Oline H. Cogdill, McClatchy Newspapers


History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason; Alfred A. Knopf ($25.95)

"History of a Pleasure Seeker" has landed at just the right time. Americans, thanks to PBS' "Downton Abbey," are now hip to the upstairs-downstairs issues faced by great European households at the dawn of the 20th century. The up-close mix of luxury, labor and longing -- plus a country house's-worth of burbling romance -- are condensed into the handsome and ambitious Piet Barol.

Barol arrives in Amsterdam, in 1907, with a university degree and a cold past that he's determined to leave behind. He's hired as tutor to Egbert, son of wealthy financier Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts, who conveniently has two attractive, eligible daughters.

The setting and plot may be borrowed from a stack of paperback romances, but in Mason's hands, the material is transformed.

Mason is better known in England, where his novel "The Drowning People" was published when he was just 19. Now, not yet 25, he's on his fourth novel, and it's as polished as the Vermeulen-Sickerts' silver, a literary guilty pleasure.

As tutor, Barol finds a place between upstairs and down. He lodges under the eaves with two male servants, but he dines with the family and spends his leisure time with them. With his good looks and keen sense of style, he's soon passing for a member of the upper class.

Barol has a friend in handsome blond footman, Didier Loubat. They share their bathing allotment, hanging out together in the bathroom (with an erotic charge that comes and goes) and spending time in Loubat's room, where they eavesdrop on the Vermeulen-Sickerts daughters below.

With opposing temperaments and style, daughters Louisa and Constance are set up to loathe each other, yet the girls' friendship "was devoted and tender," Mason writes. Meanwhile, Egbert, though smart and gifted, has not set foot outside of the house in years. Is it some combination of obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia? -- but Barol knows only that the boy behaves strangely.

By frequently moving between the characters' points of view, Mason builds tension. We know what everyone wants, and we can see when those desires are set on a collision course.

-- Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times