Ghost Riders by Sharyn McCrumb (Dutton). Much more than just another Civil War novel, this is a well told, atmospheric tale of that tragic era in the Appalachians -- an area McCrumb has made her specialty. She manages to relate the intense conflicts the war caused among mountain dwellers while telling a compelling ghost story.
Under The Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer (Doubleday). The chilling, well-told, true story of two Mormon fundamentalist brothers who, in 1984, believing they were obeying orders from God, murdered their sister-in-law and her baby. Krakauer, an excellent reporter who wrote the best-selling Into Thin Air, draws a clear historical line stretching from today's fundamentalist/polygamist subculture back to the early, i.e., polygamous and violent, history of Mormonism. The book has enraged mainstream Mormons, who disavow any connection to present-day fundamentalists. Nonetheless, Krakauer's book is a welcome albeit gruesome glimpse into how spirituality can be twisted into its murderous opposite.
The Mammoth Cheese by Sheri Holman (Atlantic Monthly Press). Holman masterfully juggles three distinct storylines involving a rural Virginia town where a woman gives birth to 11 babies; a cheesemaker/single mom who captures the heart of her co-worker, a Jefferson devotee; and the cheesemaker's daughter's rebellious coming of age. When the media lose interest in the 11 babies, the townspeople re-enact an historical event, in which dairy farmers crafted a 1,235-pound handmade cheese, then carted it to Washington. Holman's prose seems effortless as she tightens and moves her seemingly incongruous storylines smoothly toward their conclusion.
Edison's Eve by Gaby Wood (Anchor). Subtitled "A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life," this book examines, in a quirky, intelligent way, attempts from the 18th century to the present to create various forms of automata. The title "character," a talking doll created by Thomas Edison in the 1800s, was a commercial flop, but the point here isn't success but rather the relationships between the creators and their creations. Particularly fascinating here are French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson and his mechanical pooping duck; a band of dwarves called the Doll family; and current experiments with robots.
Candy: A Novel by Mian Mian (Back Bay Books). A young Chinese writer who's an icon of sorts in her homeland (although her work has been banned by the government) wrote this gracefully harrowing novel reveals a little talked about segment of China's population -- their "lost generation" of apolitical teens and 20-somethings who've dropped out of government-controlled society and disappeared into scattered big-city subcultures of prostitution, organized crime and drugs. These disaffected young people with rock & roll hearts and rotting livers spend their days and nights having unfulfilling sex, shooting heroin, and listening to American oldies. This is raw, powerful stuff, but well worth the effort.