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The Amalgamation Polka by Steven Wright (Knopf hardback). Wright's Civil War opus is a testament both to the perseverance and peculiarity of the American character. It is a descent into the fevered madness of a country sickened by its own conflicting moralities and seething with an appetite for war. Wright's visceral and disorienting imagery lends a sense of palpability to a violent confrontation between the orders of passion and reason. His protagonist, Liberty Fish, the son of a Northern abolitionist father and slave-holding mother of Southern aristocracy, embodies a classic American protagonist: intelligent, sensitive and, at the outset, naive. When Fish departs his idyllic childhood and enlists in the Union Army, he traverses the slave-holding South in search of his past and a reckoning with the forces that spawned both him and the insidious ideology with which his nation grapples. -- Justin Stacy

Utterly Monkey by Nick Laird (Harper Perennial paperback). Poet Nick Laird's debut novel, Utterly Monkey, is utterly charming. It details the escapades of two mates from Northern Ireland who have chosen disparate lifestyles. Danny is a corporate lawyer in London. Geordie is unemployed, still living in Ulster. They share a past riddled with humor and real danger, including a bungled burglary in which an innocent man ended up dead on the floor. When Geordie's girl Janice gives him the cash her brother Budgie had earmarked for a mysterious heist, Geordie goes on the run and ends up on Danny's couch, his life is forever changed. Laird's love of Ireland is palpable, and his writing is delightful. This is a funny story about a man who chooses good over evil and is rewarded with a clean conscience about the past and a promising future. -- Melinda Farbman

Girls of a Tender Age by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Free Press hardback). Memoirs of self-destructive behavior and of being physically and/or sexually abused have become very popular, particularly if they are written by celebrities (or their ghost writers). A contemporary literary genre has been constructed. The novelist Tirone Smith is not a celebrity, at least not on the order of those illustrious authors Oprah and Roseanne, but she is a person of substance. Her memoir has the power to evoke emotion that is not merely maudlin. Girls of a Tender Age is an account of a Catholic family in post-World War II Hartford, CT and the pedophile harasser that changes them. -- Peter Lamal

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