"Body of Lies"
David Ignatius (W.W. Norton & Company, $24.95)
"Body of Lies," the sixth novel by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, follows the efforts of CIA operative Roger Ferris to bring down a deadly new al-Qaida cell headed by a cunning and enigmatic terrorist known only as "Suleiman."
The pursuit hops the globe, taking the reader to Amman, Ankara, Pakistan and other locales far from the flashpoints familiar to readers of Cold War spy fiction. Perhaps anticipating an audience more familiar with well-worn standbys like Rome and Berlin, exotic locales in the Middle East and Central Asia are thoroughly and convincingly drawn.
The real revelation, though, is Hani, the head of Jordanian intelligence and the gem of the novel. Potentially both a danger and ally to agent Ferris, Hani knows more than he tells, but just how much more and for whose benefit is not revealed until the end. Ignatius frequently drops hints that a given instance or relationship is not entirely as it seems, hints that are subtle only to the extent that they are not underlined and written in block letters. When the revelatory twists arrive, however, they are unexpected and satisfying as befits good spy fiction.
Excepting a distracting side plot involving Ferris' marital difficulties, the pacing is taut, and the way that loyalties, friendships and human bodies can be misused for the sake of a larger cause seems firmly grounded in reality. In scenes of torture, though, the bracing violence is committed only by the terrorists, rather than by the United States and its allies. It's one of the book's few pleasant fictions. Dan Dueholm
"You Don't Love Me Yet"
Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday, $24.95)
Jonathan Lethem earned his reputation as a contemporary author with work that frequently riffs on other literary genres such as detective fiction and Westerns. "You Don't Love Me Yet," his latest novel, seems to take its cues from a glossy lifestyle magazine for 30-somethings.
The story follows the sudden rise and stunning fall of an indie rock band in Los Angeles, focusing on the appetites of the group's bass player, Lucinda Hoekke. She likes Scotch and sex and food (the beginning and the end of the book read like a menu cataloging her mouthwatering culinary adventures: Cuban sandwiches, salted crabs, coffees, steamed cauliflower).
Like all self-respecting indie rockers, the band is in with artsy types, and Lethem does a mesmerizing job of describing art installations and band practices with the precision of an art critic and the enthusiasm of a sportswriter.
In the middle of the story Lucinda takes a lover, an older man whose professional talents as a slogan writer she secretly appropriates to bolster the band's lyrics. When the sloganeer finds out, he insists on joining the band, leading to disaster. When the book once again reads like a menu, we know that things have returned to the way they were at the beginning.
Lethem describes much of the band's surroundings with lush and crafty prose, but is oddly silent on the internal lives of his characters. They remain opaque and two-dimensional, like an IKEA catalog: well-appointed but impenetrable. It makes the book feel slight, which may be the point. After all, as the sloganeer argues, "You can't be deep without a surface." Amy Biegelsen
"The Life You Longed For"
Maribeth Fischer (Simon & Schuster, $25)
"Desire," "Belief," "Betrayal," "Fear" and "Grief": The section titles for Virginia Commonwealth University grad Maribeth Fischer's second novel, "The Life You Longed For," are reminiscent of both the Kübler-Ross cycle of grief and a descent into Dante's "Inferno." As Philadelphia mom Grace Connolly navigates the consequences of adultery, criminal allegations of child abuse and the terminal illness of her 3-year-old son, the reader is drawn further into the book's intensity a descent into Fischer's Inferno.
While Grace is the focal point of the book's complex emotional escalation, her illness Munchausen syndrome by proxy, when a parent makes a child sick in order to gain attention and her son's mysterious mitochondrial disease are dramatic characters themselves. As Grace is forced into a Munchausen investigation by Child Protective Services, she begins to draw parallels between her current circumstances and the women accused of killing children in the days of the Salem witch trials.
With ample birding facts from Grace's red-headed ornithologist lover, scientific forays into the medical complexities of childhood illness and a literary analysis of "The Crucible," Fischer's readers will have an educational experience, even as they brace themselves for the emotional impact of a fast-moving train.
While Fischer never pussyfoots around the devastation of death, her touch is just as sure around redemption, forgiveness and that filmy space between the life that is longed for and the life that is actually lived. Valley Haggard