Berlin, 1945, battered, bombed-out, divided, is the stark setting and frame for Joseph Kanon's brilliantly nuanced historical thriller The Good German. Journalist Jake Geismar returns to Germany to cover the end of the war and search for the woman he loved. While he tries to put back the pieces of the life and love he knew before, Jake becomes involved in solving the murder of an American GI. Trying to track down both motive and murderer takes him deep into the underside of this scarred city, where everything has a price and everything is for sale, including the rocketry expertise of the enemy we just defeated. As Jake begins to realize that our own government is readying itself to fight a new war with an old ally, he, and we, see how good and bad can be bent with Orwellian ease, how right and wrong can be blurred, forgotten and made obsolete. Stanley Tucci gives a bravura performance, making Germans, Russians and Americans sound as they should, and anguish and cold calculation palpable.

Changing times

Tracy Chevalier's debut novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, set in 17th century Holland, was a surprise bestseller. Now, Ms. Chevalier has turned her talent and imagination to an assured, moving evocation of life in London during the turbulent first decade of the 20th century, when society began to slough off Victorian values. Falling Angels, read with perfect pitch by Anne Twomey, begins with the death of Queen Victoria, when two families meet in a fashionable London cemetery. Their daughters become best friends and we follow them all for the next 10 years. The two young girls, so very different in outlook and interests, their equally opposite mothers -- one an adamant suffragette, one mired in tradition -- and other characters from both upstairs and down, narrate parts of the story. Their alternating voices and first-person accounts make an extraordinary mosaic that lets us into their lives and into an era. Chevalier uses her well-researched details deftly, creating an accurate historical atmosphere for this very compelling novel.

Amor y Corazon

Though Victor Villasenor's Thirteen Senses is about the early years of his parents' marriage when the feisty, fiery young couple was beset with trials, tribulations and the Great Depression, it's Dona Margarita, his wise paternal grandmother, steeped in the traditions of her Mexican Indian ancestors, who captures center stage. It is she who understands the 13 senses (not to be confused with the "tenth insight"), passing along her knowledge to her son and "daughter-in-love." She preaches a wild, charming, disarming amalgam of faiths and does it with wit, deep conviction and language that would make a sailor blush. Daphne Rubin-Vega's throaty voice and perfect pronunciation of the Mexican Spanish liberally sprinkled throughout this marvelous memoir gives the reading umph and authenticity.

For dear life

If heart-stopping (and I mean that literally) situations and adrenaline-packed adventure fascinate you, in actuality or in the safety of your armchair, you'll be riveted by Last Breath: Cautionary Tales from the Limits of Endurance by Peter Stark. Stark, who narrates too, takes you up mountains, down dangerous gorges, into an on-rushing avalanche and deceptively calm, tropical waters teeming with lethal, almost transparent creatures, then leaves you lost in sub-zero temperatures and baking in heat and humidity. And while he tells these tales, he explains what is happening to your body and your mind in these perilous situations: how a bike racer succumbs to hypothermia as she pedals uphill; how a back-country snowboarder feels as he fights for oxygen under thousands of pounds of snow; and how arrogance propels a climber to go it alone. A great combination of science and storytelling.

 

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