No Book but the World
By Leah Hager Cohen. (Riverhead Books, 310 pages, $27.95.)
There are many things to think about after reading Leah Hager Cohen's latest novel: What is an adult sibling's responsibility in caring for another, especially when he or she is vulnerable or ill? How much from childhood is clearly remembered or rather imagined to fill in memory's gaps? Why are people so quick to accept the most convenient explanation for any situation rather than taking the time to find the truth?
Cohen tells the story of siblings Ava and Fred — or rather she lets Ava tell the story — and it begins with Fred jailed in connection with the death of a young boy. Fred clearly has developmental disabilities never diagnosed or treated. " 'He is difficult to love,' June [their mother] said after a while. Softly, softly she said this, as if it was a secret she had always meant to keep. A pause. Then: 'That's not the same as unlovable.' "
The family operated and lived in a type of experimental community in which schooling consisted of letting the children explore their interests and learn from the natural consequences of their actions, as the novel's title suggests. Much of the novel consists of tales of their growing up, alternating scenes of sibling tenderness and cruelty. As June is dying, she arranges for Fred to live with a young acquaintance who promises to provide work for him in exchange for ongoing payments. Ava is relieved, as her new marriage and independent life leave little room for Fred. When she learns he is in trouble, she is overcome with guilt and remorse.
If this sounds predictable, the story is anything but. Cohen writes beautifully. Each word seems carefully chosen to paint this unsettling picture of a family with which many readers will identify.
Judy Romanowich Smith
The Counterfeit Agent
By Alex Berenson. (Putnam, 374 pages, $27.95.)
John Wells is one of the more unique protagonists in the thriller genre: An American convert to Islam, his faith is understated; a highly skilled CIA killer, he eschews wanton brutality. But this is no Care Bear with a K-Bar knife and a 9 mm. Wells is rock hard, keenly intelligent and, distinctly counterintuitive for this kind of story, wracked by the kinds of personal problems that beset us all.
In this, Alex Berenson's eighth installment of the particularly well-crafted Wells saga, Iranians appear intent on smuggling radioactive material into the United States to trigger a war between Washington and Tehran. But are these really Iranian government operatives or, as Wells surmises, a fellow CIA agent who has gone rogue?
From the opening gambit in Istanbul to the fetid streets of Thailand and the Philippines, Guatemala and Panama, the pace never lets up. Moreover, the characters we've come to expect in Berenson's stories — Ellis Shafer, Wells' wisecracking old boss, and Vinny Duto, the opportunistic ex-CIA director turned U.S. senator — are on hand and in especially fine form. The author excels at limning the shadowy world of international espionage, and his feel for the locales in which Wells operates is top-notch. This is an intelligent thriller of the first order, an exciting, satisfying and rewarding read.
MICHAEL J. BONAFIELD