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Keeping in mind word-centric documentaries such as "Spellbound" and "Word Wars," it's not difficult to imagine Romano as the star of a feature-length film about the annual crossword championship in Stamford, Conn. Although he says it's peopled with "the largest collection of loners this side of the Kafka family reunion," we are introduced to a cast of characters who are as interesting as they are disturbingly brilliant. Equally relevant to the virgin puzzler as to the experienced pro who can knock out the New York Times' daily puzzle in well under 20 minutes, "Crossworld" reveals a refreshing view into thinking America.

If the world of crosswords has heretofore lacked a leader, a voice, or a cruciverbalist heartthrob, it has certainly found one in the puzzling figure of Marc Romano. — Valley Haggard

Jean Tupper isn't another woman poet from New England who'll stick her head in the oven during hard winters; she's found a way to link the trajectory of ordinary family life to a greater world, facing it all down with details that create a sense of place.

American poetry's greatest challenge is to blast its own recent tendencies toward the confessional to make bigger poems. With her debut volume, "Woman in Rainlight" (Hobblebush Books, $14.95), Tupper provides a feminine history of her New England life, from depicting her mother's careful creating of chowders and sweaters to making her daughter scrub away her name from the sidewalk, to the grown woman who's packing her own daughter's footlocker for boarding school: "I … could wish each day,/like you, to sign my name/on fresh white sheets." (From "Something of Me Goes With You.")

In a particularly moving "Untrimming the Tree," as the speaker packs away holiday trim, she muses on "that human ornament — a child — /dangling from a tree…/lost on a Christmas flight."

The poems weave personal experience with recent world horrors and, as we read, we're rescued in the same way the speaker is — by focusing on the miracle of family and loving those close, we can care globally about others. — Susan Hankla

Set against the stark, sweeping backdrop of the unending wars in Sudan, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Caputo's latest novel, "Acts of Faith" (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95), follows aid workers, missionaries, pilots, rebels and warlords descending into a chasm of corruption and betrayal that eventually leads to murder. Caputo is a masterful depicter of place. Evoking the vast space, the changing light, the pungent smells and the rhythms of ceremony, battle and simple acts of daily life, he creates a mesmerizing picture of Africa. He also provides a fascinating glimpse into the workings of the nongovernmental aid agencies (NGOs) and the pilots who transport people, humanitarian supplies and weapons around the continent.

Against this magnificent backdrop, Caputo's contrived characters and redundant plot are disappointing. The brash, amoral American pilot, the beautiful American missionary seduced by the handsome rebel lieutenant colonel, and the elegant middle-aged Anglo-Kenyan aristocrat in love with the younger, mixed-race former aid worker all could have stepped off the set of a second-rate TV miniseries. The plot repeatedly illustrates Caputo's point that almost everyone is corruptible. Character after character sells out values for money, power and passion. The reader quickly becomes adept at predicting the next moral slip and which innocent people will suffer as a result.

The vivid, living Africa created by Caputo carries the reader a long way in "Acts of Faith." However, without original characters and real surprises, it cannot sustain all 669 pages. — Mary Mullins

In "No Country for Old Men" (Knopf, $24.95), the first novel in seven years by Cormac McCarthy, the same Texas frontier land that served as setting and major character in his stories from "Border Trilogy" and "Blood Meridian," becomes once again an allegorical plane for the meeting of order and violence. Alternating between the ruminations of a small-town sheriff at the end of his career and the fallout from a drug deal gone bad, McCarthy's language is spare, his dusty dialect sharp as ever.

A man, Moss, finds a satchel of money in the desert at the site of a "dopedealer" gunfight, setting in motion a cat-and-mouse pursuit. McCarthy knows how to craft characters who are mythically evil — The Judge in "Blood Meridian," for one — and he attains similar depths of orderly, Zenlike violence in Chigurh, the man hunting for Moss. On the other side is Sheriff Bell, struggling to keep up with a world that can produce such depravity. With McCarthy's prose often taking on the lyricism of a religious text, the movements of the characters become symbolic: Moss is a man whose moment of luck (or greed) is bordered by a tired good on one side and a relentless, ever-evolving evil on the other. Adding to the timelessness of the struggle is the landscape itself, empty desert and the similarity of endless small towns. But the story finally plays out when Bell reveals his own past, ending illusions of innocent bygone times while resigning him to the inevitability of death. — Brandon Reynolds

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