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The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr (Random House hardback). You know a book is good when you find yourself still thinking about it after you've moved on to other books. That's what happened to me with The Lost Painting. Harr, the author of 1997's A Civil Action, tells the story of how a famous lost painting, "The Taking of Christ" by Caravaggio, was tracked down. As a young Italian art historian closes in on the Caravaggio masterpiece, her story converges with that of an art restorer in Dublin who believes he's found a lost Caravaggio in the lobby of a Jesuit rectory. Harr takes subjects that could have been boring to nonartsy types -- investigations through musty archives, rivalries among art historians, methods of cleaning old paintings -- and brings them together in a fast-moving, even riveting, narrative. He enlivens the story by giving an overview of the life of Caravaggio, a 16th century Italian painter whose portrayal of dramatic lighting, vivid depictions of violence and his own street-fighting-man lifestyle has made him a modern favorite. The peek into the rarified world of art history and museums, in Harr's hands, is an unexpected delight. John Grooms

Cheat and Charmer by Elizabeth Frank (Random House paperback). Would you believe a Jackie Susann-ish novel about the McCarthy Era's anti-communist witch hunts? This is it -- and somehow it works due to the strength of Frank's muscular writing and her portrayal of the complex relationship between two sisters, one of whom turns the other one in as a commie sympathizer. Full of seedy, self-serving characters, lurid affairs, Hollywood dish and hand-wringing guilt, Cheat and Charmer looks behind the 1950s' respectable façade and revels in what it finds. Think of Nixon visiting Peyton Place and you've got the picture. Dana Renaldi

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