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All The Shah's Men by Stephen Kinzer (John Wiley & Sons). Veteran New York Times foreign correspondent chronicles the 1953 US-sponsored overthrow of Iran's democratically elected leader, Mohamed Mossadegh, in a brilliantly realized history that also explains why US troops are dying in Iraq today. Kinzer connects the dots in a manner that would do Graham Greene's fiction proud -- only this intrigue was real and its consequences eventually disastrous for the US. If only the current administration had read this instead of the pro-Apocalypse Left Behind series.

Good Morning, Killer by April Smith (Knopf). FBI Agent Ana Grey is called in to help solve the kidnapping of young Juliana Meyer-Murphy in this suspense-filled mystery. Grey is strong-willed and prickly, not much like Dana Scully from The X-Files, which is a good thing. The story takes some good twists and keeps the suspense going in both the main plot and the subplot about Grey's romance with Santa Monica Police Detective Andrew Berringer. It's got action aplenty as well as soul searching on Grey's part -- just when you think the navel-gazing is getting to be a bit much, Smith pulls back and throws in another twist. This is the second book in the series and a page turner, so I'm definitely on the lookout for the first one.

And Now You Can Go by Vendela Vida (Knopf). Here's a small masterpiece that came out of nowhere. In her first novel, Vida writes of a young woman whose life is seriously threatened one day by an armed man. She talks him out of killing her, and the rest of the book (a quick 190 pages) is about how she re-enters everyday life. But this isn't one of the usual "poor victim on the road to recovery and discovery" soaps that often pass for literature. Vida writes in stripped down, muscular prose that grabs your attention while keeping her story zooming along. Her insights are filled with real life's ambiguities and feel honest and hard-earned. A very impressive debut.

Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros (Vintage). Cisneros' second novel creates a sprawling, cinemascope portrait of a family in which she takes readers into the lives of Lala Reyes' family as they regularly drive between Chicago and Mexico to visit the Little Grandfather and the Awful Grandmother. Family feuds and intimacies, aching secrets, and the culture clashes that come with emigration drive this remarkable book. Wide-ranging books like this one have gained popularity in the last couple of decades -- novels where the author moves all over the landscape, telling a few stories simultaneously and riffing on various subjects -- but they're often an unwieldy, frustrating mess. Cisneros easily breaks that mold and I found myself reading this raucous novel at a breakneck pace.

After by Steven Brill (Simon & Schuster). Subtitled "How America Confronted the September 12 Era," this is a panoramic view of the US in the year after the September 11 attacks. Brill cuts between many different people and locations, from the White House and corporate boardrooms to victims' families and ordinary Americans' lives. The overall portrait of the country that emerges from Brill's mosaic is of a mostly well-meaning people doing what they think is best to deal with harsh and sad new realities, punctuated by disturbing portraits of profiteers looking to cash in, and an utterly clueless Attorney General who's willing to throw out the Bill of Rights in his desperation to appear competent.

The Floating City by Pamela Ball (Penguin USA). The Floating City, set in 1890s Hawaii, feels serene, or perhaps just detached, yet it's also a gripping and unsettling short novel. Eva Hanson, a Norwegian newcomer to the island, is caught up in the case of the death of a wealthy island man suspected of being a supporter of the island's imprisoned queen. That central plot is intriguing, but it takes an emotional backseat to Hall's portrait of Hawaii as it was being transformed by missionaries, plundering sugar growers and, eventually, the US army. As the plot unfolds, Ball's book becomes a meditation on the upheavals and destruction brought by colonialism.

-- John Grooms, Dana Renaldi, John Schacht, Ann Wicker

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