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Novels range from poignant to hilarious

New fiction is all over the map this season, a real holiday cornucopia of novels.

New fiction is all over the map this season, a real holiday cornucopia of novels.

Some major authors have returned this season with new novels. In his first work of fiction in over a decade, the legendary Gabriel Garcia Marquez has returned with a slim novella, “Memories of My Melancholy Whores.” Lauren Weisberger, who hit bestseller lists with 2003's "The Devil Wears Prada," is mining that same brand-name filled territory with "Everyone Worth Knowing."

Two major authors have traded the topics that made them famous for new subjects, without a lot of success. Anne Rice, who made her bones with tales of vampires and the underworld, has switched topics and has produced her first novel in a planned series about the life of Christ.  And Scott Turow, famous for his courtroom novels, moves onto the battlefield with World War II tale "Ordinary Heroes."

Words as ‘Weapons’Readers who know hilarious British goofball Adrian Mole will be delighted to see that, at 34, he's still the same pompous, good-hearted mess he was back in 1984's "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4." (Those who aren't familiar with old Moley should run right out and get "Secret Diary" — you'll want to start at the beginning.)

In "Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction" (Soho Press, $24) Sue Townsend's hero has few things he can count on in his life. Wife JoJo has taken his nine-year-old son, William, and returned to Nigeria, and grown son Glenn is in the British Army. Adrian's ever-nutty parents, George and Pauline, are attempting to renovate a pigsty. Although he has next to no money from his job in a bookshop, Adrian buys an apartment and manages to bury himself up to the eyeballs in debt. He can't even enjoy the apartment, thanks to a couple of über-defensive swans who violently guard their territory. Aidy's never had much luck with women, so he's easy to fool when the conniving Marigold pretends she's pregnant in order to nudge him towards marriage.

With his personal life a typical Mole disaster, the one thing on which Adrian stakes his faith is British Prime Minister Tony Blair's statement that weapons of mass destruction do exist. If fact, he'd really like Blair to confirm that for him, so he can get a refund of 57 pounds from his travel agency. As Adrian sinks ever deeper into the quicksand that is his life, British troops march off to Iraq, including his own son, Glenn. Townsend's style is sneaky but brilliant — one minute you're hooting at Adrian's bumbling, the next, a blunt battlefield letter from Glenn snaps everything back into perspective. Adrian may wear blinders when it comes to his personal life, but as ever, Townsend sees straight to the heart.     —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

Soldier boyNews reports often speak of Africa's child soldiers, but rarely are we given more of a glimpse into who they really are. 23-year-old Uzodinma Iweala's "Beasts of No Nation" (HarperCollins, $17) is a slim volume with a heavy mission: To take readers into the thoughts of a child who is forced to become a killer.

HarperCollins

The first chapter is heavy slogging, as our narrator, Agu, is but a child and he sees things as a child would: Thoughts come to him all at once, and sentences run on and on, packed full of feelings and at times hard to read ("I am opening my eye and there is light all around me coming into the dark through hole in the roof, crossing like net above my body.") But once you become accustomed to Agu's rapidfire thought patterns, his story is at once hypnotizing and horrifying. Kidnapped from his innocent family, the boy must watch killings and kill innocents himself, or else his own life will end, on a bloody West African road far from home.

There's no question that "Beasts" is hard to read. Agu is sexually abused by his unit's commander, and the abuse is all the harder to read for it being described in the words of a child. Aside from the desperation Agu is seeing all around him, there is an equally desperate battle going on in his own head, as he fights to keep seeing himself as a good person despite being forced to commit such nighmarish crimes. After closing the book, readers are unlikely to ever flick past such blurry images on the nightly news without uttering some kind of prayer for these desperate children, more slaves than soldiers.      —G.F.C.

Jesus as a boy
Much has been made of . After spending years in the underworld, creating such characters as "The Vampire Lestat," the author has returned to Catholicism and says she now wants only to write for Jesus Christ. "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt" (Knopf, $26) is the first in a series of books Rice plans about Christ's life.

It's an ambitious undertaking, and Rice seems to have done her research. Unfortunately, the book is disappointing and dry. Rice's child Jesus is seven, old enough to perform miracles (on the first page, he kills a child bully, later resurrecting him). Yet he's the dullest person in the book. He's a blank slate, ignorant of his origins and unsure of his future. Much time is spent on family relationships and everyday life, and there are whole chapters when it's almost easy to forget that this well-meaning, boring boy is Jesus.

It's understandable that Christ as a child would be uninformed, would need to learn of his miraculous origins. But the book only brightens when another character — Christ's mother, Mary, or Joseph's older son, James — are relating these stories to Christ. When James unfolds the oh-so-familiar story of the Nativity, old hymns come to life. Perhaps Rice will pick up the pace in the next two books, as Christ grows up, but then again, those later-in-life stories are well-told in a certain Book that many homes already own.    —G.F.C.

War of the world
The real-life mystery of Flannan Isle, involving the unexplained disappearance of several lighthouse-keepers, has inspired a poem, an opera, and perhaps “Cold Skin,” this striking Spanish novel by Albert Sánchez Piñol (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $20) — which could also claim a familial relationship with the works of H.P. Lovecraft and George Romero.

An unnamed narrator, a “weather official” and disillusioned former revolutionary, takes a 12-month position measuring the winds at an outpost on a mile-long island near Antarctica.  He arrives to find the only structures are a lighthouse fortified with glass shards and wooden stakes, and the weather official’s cottage, ominously unoccupied by his predecessor. Gruner, the putative lighthouse-keeper, is hostile and borderline catatonic. The first evening, an elongated, sinewy arm reaches through the flap in the narrator’s front door and fumbles for the latch with webbed fingers. Thus begins the siege of the humanoid amphibians; no matter how many are felled, dozens more rise relentlessly from the sea each long night, battering at the walls.

The humans, who form an uneasy alliance with one another and a single outcast female creature they keep as a mascot, are blind to the fact that they are, in fact, the invaders on an already-occupied territory. In their efforts to survive, the two men plan to lay waste to a unique race and the length of the island, as genocide seems the only solution to their plight.  Piñol makes this allegory manifest a little late in the story, perhaps; the astute reader will be way ahead of his analogy to colonization.  In spite of this small weakness, the tale is as absorbing as it is horrifying.    —Kim Rollins

‘Prada’ reduxIn her new novel “Everyone Worth Knowing” (Simon & Schuster; $24), Lauren Weisberger continues the meditation on status and brand recognition she began in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Where “Prada” focused on the artificialities and flamboyant characters of magazine publishing, “Everyone Worth Knowing” focuses on the artificialities and flamboyant characters of public relations.

Simon & Schuster

While Weisberger’s tale, about a former investment banker who lands at a PR firm, is engaging, it shares a critical flaw with “Prada.” Weisberger obviously wants to satirize a stereotypically Manhattanite focus on dropping the name of the right person, restaurant, or brand. But the book puzzlingly bogs down in a morass of references to everything upscale and painfully chic. What is intended to be a cutting narrative often feels like Weisberger is simply showing off how much she knows about what the rich and famous wear and eat and talk about. By the end of the book, you may be eager to never read another word about lush fabrics.

The characters in a Weisberger novel typically suffer from a complicated love-hate relationship with fame and glamour. Unfortunately, the breezy writing is weighted down by the fact that Weisberg obviously does, too.    —Linda Holmes

Saving ‘Grace’
Tom Bailey’s “The Grace That Keeps This World” (Shaye Areheart Books, $24) is a tale tailor-made for a cold winter's night. Bailey tells the story of the Hazens, an Adirondack family living in Lost Lake, N.Y., who must hunt to sustain themselves through long, punishing winters.

We begin the story knowing that an unexplained tragedy has occurred, and events slowly build to the horrible occurrence. Even before the crisis, Hazen’s sons, Gary David and Kevin, find themselves each stuck at a crossroads. Kevin’s drawn to college, Gary David to a romance with the local conservation officer. Neither of these fit into their father’s plans, which consist primarily of making sure they have enough meat and firewood for winter.

Bailey doesn’t play it safe in this, his first novel. He tells the story using multiple narrators — some are members of the family and others more tangential. This relieves the story of the claustrophobia that might come with staying with patriarch Gary's rather black-and-white point of view. Different narrators open up the shades of gray.

Where Bailey falters is in some of the action sequences. In the climax, for example, he makes it difficult to figure out what exactly has occurred. Readers don't quite grasp the details until we hear another character talk about it in the next chapter. The action sequences would have been stronger had he simply stayed in the moment.

Still, it’s hard not to be drawn into the life of this hardscrabble town and its inhabitants. Perhaps Bailey will tell some of the other residents’ stories. He’s definitely given himself the material to do so.     —Paige Newman

Brontë undauntingOnly a Victorian scholar could claim zero apprehension toward Jennifer Vandever’s debut novel about a New York professor who studies the Brontë sisters. Fortunately for non-English majors, Vandever's “The Brontë Project” (Shaye Areheart Books, $21) converts potentially staid literary references into accessible fare.

Sara Frost has stagnated in her thesis quest for the lost letters of Charlotte Brontë, until heartbreak and a flamboyant Princess Diana scholar jolt her into reconsidering her lifestyle. Sara's forced to resurface from the musty Brontës and join the real world: "How had she missed, all these years, the undiscovered emotional powerhouse that was REO Speedwagon?" A French libertine, millionaire eccentric, and Hollywood producer all cross her path as she reconsiders her professional muse.

Vandever moves with authentic-sounding ease from the halls of academia to Hollywood’s lacquer, and her pop culture allusions are a treat. It's a bit difficult to buy that a quiet, wan Suzy Scholar can become a glamorous jetsetter in just a few months, but the author at least offers Sara’s guarded discomfort along the way. Charlotte Brontë might have disapproved, in favor of more brooding introspection and less caprice — but “Jane Eyre” never had to contend with a script in pre-production, an interview with Courtney Love or Armani retail therapy, either.      —Tracy Edmondson

A master returnsIn his first work of fiction in over a decade, the legendary Gabriel Garcia Marquez returns with “Memories of My Melancholy Whores” (Knopf, $20). The novella tells of an offbeat love story between a 90-year-old self-proclaimed hack writer, who’s never been with a woman he hasn’t paid, and a 14-year-old virgin and would-be prostitute. What surprising about the book is how quickly you move from the eye-rolling that comes with reading the line, “The year I turned 90, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin” to accepting this brief but shining story about the flowering of a man’s heart in the final years of his life. 

Knopf

The unnamed narrator is brought together with the virgin by his friend Rosa Cabaracas, the local madam.  At first, he can barely even bring himself to touch the girl, let alone consummate the relationship. He prefers to lie with her, to watch her sleep, to read to her. But slowly, even as the physical relationship remains relatively innocent, his love for her grows. “I felt so happy that I would kiss her eyelids with very gentle kisses,” he tells us, “and one night it happened like a light in the sky: she smiled for the first time.” The 90-year-old man is awakening as an adolescent would to the meaning of love, lending poignancy to the novella's brief life.

With “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in the author's oeuvre, it’s hard to judge a Garcia Marquez novel completely on its own. Yes, this is a lesser work for the 78-year-old author, but he still manages to dazzle, if only for a short 115 pages.    —P.N.

On a ‘Mission’In “Mission to America” (Doubleday, $24), Walter Kirn writes as Mason LaVerle of the Aboriginal Fulfilled Apostles, a matriarchal Bluff, Mont., cult whose belief system is a  hodgepodge of faiths embracing, among myriad other principles, “the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, and the Hindu Law of Karma.”  As Bluff’s population dwindles, the AFA is in desperate need of fresh blood from “Terrestria,” the outside world.  Mason, whose only knowledge of Terrestria is what he’s pieced together from Trivial Pursuit cards, sets out with his compatriot Elder Stark on an evangelical recruiting mission, one that they kick off by checking into a motel and raptly watching seven straight hours of television.

They come to rest in Snowshoe Springs, an affluent Colorado resort where they minister to many lost souls: Lara, the fading soap-opera star who calls them to the scene of her botched bathtub suicide attempt; Betsy, who holes up in her mother’s basement accumulating vintage clothes; and the ultra-rich Effingham family, possessed of their own mountain range and bison herd, whom Stark coldly targets as the AFA’s potential financial salvation. Along the way, Mason gradually becomes aware that his own path to redemption may be just as misguided as everyone else’s.

Kirn wryly captures the saucer-eyed viewpoint of a man who has essentially just fallen to Earth — when an entrepreneur considers hiring Mason as a Mystery Shopper, he notes, “You haven’t been desensitized. You’ll notice things.” His sardonic prose recalls Chuck Pahlaniuk; the two authors share a cynicism about human beings’ capacity for self-delusion, yet Kirn manages to make his subjects endearing in spite of his tacit recognition of their fundamental flaws. A tertiary character calls Mason an “upbeat nihilist,” and the appellation might just as well be applied to his creator.    —K.R.

Hero worshipScott Turow, famed for legal thrillers, trades the courtroom for the battlefield in "Ordinary Heroes" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25). Turow tells the story of Stewart Dubinsky, a man in search of the person his father really was, coming at last to know him through written recollections from World War II.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

It’s never clear why Turow uses the son-father framing device. Dubinsky basically discovers a full manuscript that tells his father’s story, and when the point of view does switch to back to the son, it feels too authorial — as if Turow is directing the reader to reflect on what's just been read. Yet Dubinsky's father, David Dubin, has a far more compelling story. Dubin's a lawyer by trade, who finds himself roped into the terrors of war. A scene where he and his men lay in the snow, playing dead until the enemy finally recedes, is horrifying in its detail.

Sadly, the book's major plot, in which Dubin tracks down rogue officer Robert Martin, comes off as much too cinematic. Martin and his loyal comrade, Polish refugee Gita Lodz, talk Hollywood talk. In one spot, Lodz tells Dubin “I have fought because the Nazis are wrong and we are right and the Nazis must lose. But I also fight death.” You can practically hear the background music swell whenever she speaks.

Ultimately, this is a story about that old cliché: One must discover for himself the futility of war. And while it’s hard not to admire the book’s heart, getting to that sentiment may feel a bit like trudging through fluffy Hollywood snow.    —P.N.

Model behavior            It’s easy, and a little lazy, to call Mary Gaitskill’s characters bitter. Instead, they're active, selfish people who blindly hurt others but ultimately treat themselves worst of all. Her latest book, “Veronica,” (Pantheon, $23) tells the story of two unlikely friends: former model Alison and Veronica, a proofreader who died of AIDS.

Gaitskill follows Alison’s rise and fall as a model, and Gaitskill imbues her with every good and bad characteristic a model's life entails. She’s beautiful, of course, and more than willing to use her looks to take advantage of any situation. She’s also misused by men, estranged from her family and generally detached from the world. Veronica is a completely different creature, with bleached blond hair and a bisexual user boyfriend, who eventually sets her upon the road to AIDS. Yet Alison finds herself drawn to her, even more so when she realizes that Veronica is ill.

The most devastating parts of Gaitskill’s novel are when Alison admits to herself that she’s embarrassed by Veronica, that she was a terrible friend, and that at times she didn’t even like her. There’s so much unsentimental rawness to Gaitskill's style here — she unforgivingly leaves her characters naked for our judgment, this making them all that much more empathetic. Ultimately, readers may squirm as they begin to recognize parts of themselves in Alison. And that’s just the way Gaitskill wants it.     —P.N.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Books Editor. Paige Newman is MSNBC.com's Movies Editor. Kim Rollins is a writer in Seattle. Tracy Edmondson is a writer in Dallas. Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.