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Reviews of spring-loaded paperbacks

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Spring is usually a prime time for paperback releases, and this season is proving to be a particularly good one. Here are reviews of five new paperbacks.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin (Scribner, $15). In the 1950s, a hard-working but unsophisticated young Irishwoman named Eilis Lacey likes her quiet days in the small town of Enniscorthy. She gets caught up, though, in a plan, hatched by her sister and the family priest, for an "adventure" in America, and winds up crossing the Atlantic and settling in a Brooklyn boarding house. The author's insights into how a newcomer to the States makes do, and the strange revelations and surprising adjustments that greet Eilis, are delivered with a spare grace that brings the young woman to life. An underlying melancholy haunts the novel -- being an immigrant isn't easy, after all, and creates as many doubts as new opportunities -- but the resolution, when Eilis must return home to deal with a new tragedy, says all an author can say about the power of commitments and love.

The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You A Happy Birthday by Neil MacFarquhar (PublicAffairs, $15.95). This book's subtitle, Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East, says it all. The author, the U.N. bureau chief for the New York Times, is a native Libyan fluent in Arabic, so his take on what's really going on in the Middle East -- beyond the stereotypical arguments about terror, Zionism, etc. -- should be listened to. MacFarquhar delivers a three-dimensional peek into what Arab citizens are doing and thinking these days. It's a surprising picture, particularly if one's view of the area has been built on U.S. media reports. People searching for political freedom, Muslims struggling with their faith that has been so warped and abused by jihadists, citizens going ga-ga over the Western world's technological doo-dads, dissidents who've been destroyed by years in prison, widespread disgust with government corruption, and distrust of both sides in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian battles -- all are described in the author's solid, at times very funny, reporting style. The final verdict is that the U.S. really, really needs to be more culturally aware of what Arabs are like if we're to ever gain enough trust to make our country's political moves in the Middle East meaningful, never mind permanent.

Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn (Simon & Schuster, $16.99). This is an enthralling look at the real-life Texan bandit pair behind the legends and movies. If one is interested in the whole phenomenon of 1930s bandits, Go Down Together is a fascinating glimpse of the era. Bonnie and Clyde's weird combination of crushing poverty and narcissism led them to commit a string of sordid robberies and murders, while the nation and the robbers themselves romanticized their exploits. It turns out that dirt-poor lives don't necessarily kill people's dreams; they just become more dangerous. This is a vivid portrait of America in a desperate time.

The Last Child by John Hart (Minotaur, $14.99.) The third thriller by Salisbury's pride and joy, John Hart (following King of Lies and Down River), is by far his best yet. Johnny Merrimon, a 13-year-old boy in a small N.C. town, goes looking for his missing twin sister, who was kidnapped at age 12. A detective keeps an eye on the boy, just enough to give the book some solid, adult supervision, although the boy can't be deterred from his search. In fact, he becomes more and more fervent in his quest, getting himself into dicey situations with characters that a more mature sleuth would recognize as unreliable, even dangerous. Hart's writing tends at times toward melodrama, but his portrait of the boy is a masterpiece, blending an adolescent's ways of thinking with the new, tempering lessons the kid must learn quickly in order to survive. In the end, the book stands as a gripping, deeply nuanced look at the power of long held secrets and the inner destruction often caused by broken families.

The Yankee Years by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci (Anchor, $16.95). More than a biography, this excellent baseball book -- one of the best published in the last few years -- relates Torre's tales of glory and woe as he wins pennants galore while rarely pleasing his psycho boss. Torre gives a clear-eyed, lively portrait of baseball as it's played, managed, and at times micro-managed today, while showing what it took to bring four titles to the Yankees in five years. Torre emerges as a likable, no-nonsense guy. Yankees upper management, on the other hand, turns out to be weirder than you ever imagined.

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