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Reviews Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," Laila Lalami's "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits," and Virginians Kurtis Davidson's new novel "What the Shadow Told Me" and Anthony P. Jones' "Operation Smokeout."

Didion presents the time after the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, as an ethnography of despair annotated with advice from poets, academic psychotherapists and Emily Post. Reporting from her research on grief, Didion compares events with the things that happened on that same date in years when her husband was alive. She investigates memory for clues and navigates through them like a lucid dream.

Quintana recovers briefly but collapses again in Los Angeles, familiar territory for Didion from her screenplay-writing days with her husband. In L.A. it takes her weeks to realize that the surgical scrubs she's been wearing might make the doctors uneasy as she quizzes the staff on drug-resistant viruses the hospital might be harboring.

The big ideas laid out in spare sentences are signature Didion. "The Year of Magical Thinking" is like the scene in "Being John Malkovich" in which the title character enters his own mind and finds a world populated by different versions of himself. A with any excellent work about a horrific subject, you almost feel guilty enjoying it. — Amy Biegelsen

In Kurtis Davidson's new novel, "What the Shadow Told Me" (Eastern Washington University Press, $18.95), editor Justina Patterson vies with a cast of unscrupulous characters to secure the second manuscript of mercurial African-American author Rufus Walter Eddison.

Eddison's first and only novel, "Darkness Visible," is considered the defining literary work of the 20th century. "What the Shadow Told Me" is actually the work of Kurt Ayau and David Rachels, Virginia Military Institute professors who collaborate under the pen name Kurtis Davidson. Ayau, who is part African-American, and Rachels, who is white and from the South, share an interest in race issues that led them to co-author the story inspired by the life of African-American writer Ralph Ellison.

Reminiscent of ensemble films such as Robert Altman's "Nashville" and Paul Haggis' recently released "Crash," the story weaves together the lives of a random collection of people into a tighter and tighter web through a series of remarkable coincidences. Witty writing and outrageous plot twists keep the hilarious adventure rollicking along. A Kwanzaa controversy, a barrage of flaming yams, a raunchy talk show and a screenplay titled "Santa's Bastards" are just a few of the wacky elements tossed into the satiric mix. Numerous cultural references both high and low entertain throughout the story. Unfortunately, by the end of this otherwise satisfying book, the co-authors' enchantment with their own cleverness overwhelms the story and leaves the reader relieved to be finished. — Mary Mullins

"Operation Smokeout" (Allen Publishing Company, $24.95) is the self-published first novel by local writer Anthony P. Jones. Written within the fairly narrow, yet extremely popular, genre of semipolitical thriller (like the works of Tom Clancy and Nelson DeMille), "Operation Smokeout" gives readers the usual elements: guns, betrayal, conspiracy, action and diabolical saboteurs. The things that might surprise you are the strange love story involving Fidel Castro's niece, a foiled coup attempt by Castro's brother-in-law and the meteoric rise of an American SEAL to the inner circle of the communist government. You'll be saying to yourself, "Now, why didn't Kennedy think of that?"

The protagonist of the novel is Washington Post reporter Schaffer O'Grady, who gets lured and entangled in the assassination of a member of the presidential cabinet and simultaneously in the abduction of his good friend, an operative in Cuba. Although O'Grady, coincidentally a former Secret Service agent, once spared the president from certain death, it's a little disconcerting that he consistently refers to the president as "Alex." Further, characters seem one-dimensional and scenes are sometimes illogical (for example, the SEAL posing as a Cuban defector suddenly gives a rousing speech to turn his fellow defectors back toward Cuba to save it from communist ruin). On the whole, even when one can sense a careful arrangement of plot, it sometimes feels forced. Still, Jones is intent on enlarging a scope of political history and place. If you enjoy the genre, you may enjoy this first effort from an emerging Richmond writer. — Darren Morris

"Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits" (Algon-quin Books of Chapel Hill, $21.95) by Morocco-born Laila Lalami introduces its four central characters in a lifeboat before unceremoniously dumping them into the Strait of Gibraltar. The reader is then plunged into the pasts and futures of the two men and two women — Murad, Aziz, Halima and Fatiz — who have risked their lives to make the illegal passage from Morocco to Spain. When the simplicity of Lalami's prose is able to invoke the style of the modern-day fable, it is very satisfying. However, there are times when the starkness of the narrative is too thin for its frame, and too often the reader is left yearning for more substance than Lalami's lean language offers.

In its willingness to look directly at issues of domestic violence, prostitution, devastating unemployment rates and the controversial decision of Islamic women to wear the hijab in modern-day Morocco, this debut novel is brave but not entirely seamless. The initial stories of Fatiz, the college girl turned prostitute, and Halima, the abused wife and mother of three, are ripe for tension and transformation, but they peter out in a disappointing anticlimax. While the reader is given a good cross-section and a more in-depth understanding of the problems facing today's Morocco-born citizens, the characters in the book fail to rise up and live beyond the page. - Valley Haggard

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