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Desert Queen by Janet Wallach (Anchor paperback). It may look like one, but this engagingly written bio isn't yet another "quirky female traveler" story. Gertrude Bell was quirky, a female, and a traveler, but her importance to Middle Eastern history far outweighs her personal idiosyncrasies. One of the first women to graduate from Oxford, Bell was complex: wealthy, smart, independent, and an anti-feminist snob. In the early 20th century, she traveled widely in the Middle East, made hundreds of contacts, and understood Arab culture as well as any Westerner, including Lawrence of Arabia. The British government came to value her as a diplomat and she was central in divvying up the region after World War I. In fact, when the time came in 1918, Bell was the one who drew the region's proposed boundaries on a piece of tracing paper. -- Dana Renaldi

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby (Riverhead hardback). Hornby veers from his usual subject of clueless men in their 30s and takes on the ultra-serious topic of mortality. Ironically, he succeeds in his new direction by staying true to his customary wry, oddly detached style. Four desperate people meet on New Year's Eve on the roof of a building where they've each come to commit suicide. Embarrassed, the members of the quartet change plans, sit down and talk, and in the following months -- punctuated by both disturbing and hilarious side trips -- they help each other more or less come to grips with their lives. Hornby has created an appealing, and strangely moving, grim comedy here and yet managed to present a new outlook of generosity and maturity. Who knew he had it in him? -- Dana Renaldi

Crusader's Cross by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster hardback). The latest volume in Burke's award-winning Dave Robicheaux mystery series is one of the best. Memories of a teenaged escapade that led to a woman's death haunt Robicheaux as the case is revived while investigating a corrupt, Old Money South Louisiana family. The New Orleans mafia is involved, as well as mob competitors from the amoral fringes of society Burke captures so well. As usual, his lyrical and evocative writing, Robicheaux's inner struggles, and the relentless pace make for a powerful combination. -- John Grooms

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