By Nick Hornby (Riverhead, 453 pages, $27.95)
Nick Hornby, that deft chronicler of the music scene, takes us to TV land and swinging mid-1960s London in his charming and humorous latest novel, "Funny Girl."
The titular character is It girl comedic actress Sophie Straw, a "quick-witted, unpretentious, high-spirited, funny, curvy, clever, beautiful blonde." We meet her as young Barbara Parker from Blackpool, who flees a beauty contest she has won, moves to London and lands an agent, who convinces her to change her name. Her looks and charisma land her the lead role in a new BBC sitcom.
Hornby follows her and her colleagues (costar Clive, producer Dennis and writers Bill and Tony) as "Barbara (and Jim)" becomes a big hit and Britain relishes its postwar cool. Hornby's references to contemporary pop culture and politics, plus a few fake reviews and vintage photos, captivatingly set the scene.
"Barbara (and Jim)" inevitably evolves and ends, and Sophie and the others make life-changing decisions. But as Sophie's manager would say: "That was the trouble with young people … they would insist on getting older."
Hornby concludes with a flash forward to the present, leaving us laughing, if sometimes ruefully.
By Barry Lancet (Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $25)
When an elderly World War II veteran asks for protection, antiques dealer-turned-private-investigator Jim Brodie is quickly embroiled in a complicated international mystery that has its roots in a stolen cache of antiquities hidden during the war.
As pieces of the loot emerge on the market, old enemies spring to action with a string of violent home invasions, "message" murders and a decapitation that strikes too close to home for Brodie. Solving the case in "Tokyo Kill" will mean brushes with the shadowy world of yakuza, Chinese Triads and kendo warriors in a culture where conversations seem to happen practically in code — and not the kind with spies.
But writer Barry Lancet, an American expat who has lived in Japan for more than two decades, is up to the task, weaving in history, art, cuisine and martial arts seamlessly. Readers who enjoy fast-paced tales of intrigue are in for a treat.
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