Winner of the National Book Award

by Jincy Willett

(Thomas Dunne Books) $23.95 Winner of the National Book Award is not a book that's won the National Book Award. It's a breezy, slightly twisted novel by Jincy Willett about two sisters (Dorcas and Abigail Mather) that features a book-within-a-book and makes mention of another book, a fictional book of nonfiction, that has won a National Book Award. (Are you still with me?) But Winner of the National Book Award's title is more than just a clever stunt; the novel takes a caustic view of publishing, family, and the American obsession with "self-actualization" and "personal growth," so the cynicism of its title--this is just not the kind of book that wins National Book Awards--works on a number of levels. As does the story itself. Its narrative layers peel away like Russian nesting dolls, with a tart-tongued ease that is compelling and nearly flawless.

As the novel opens, Dorcas Mather, a librarian in Rhode Island, is hunkered down cataloging books as a hurricane is bearing down. One book Dorcas shelves is an account of "marital horror"--and the extreme measures employed to survive it--written by her sister Abigail and a ghostwriter. With delightful mockery of the book-publishing process, Dorcas reveals that this book is making her sister into a national heroine.

Hilariously horrible excerpts from Abigail's book are interspersed with Dorcas' deflating anecdotes about the real Abigail as the dual history of the Mather sisters unfolds. Abigail's deliriously dramatic life has always been a havoc-wreaking storm, with Dorcas stranded in the debris, surveying the damage. The structure of the book conceals a kind of drollness: A hurricane hits; hilarity ensues. Natural disasters are taken in stride in this novel; it's the unnatural disasters of love and family that take the real toll. NATE LIPPENS

Judge Savage

by Tim Parks

(Arcade) $24.95 Judge Savage is a guided tour through a minefield of frustrated characters and failed relationships, in which author Tim Parks cleverly applies the methods of mystery novels to the mental life of a newly appointed judge. For Parks, the most thrilling suspense is interior, and action is a mere footnote to the infinitely richer world of thought and deliberation.

A Brazilian by birth and an upper-class Englishman by breeding, Daniel Savage is an intelligent, thoughtful family man, but an excessive philanderer. Between the lies he tells to hide his affairs and his unique status as a successful black man in the overwhelmingly white world of English law, Savage is never quite sure who he is or where he stands with his family, friends, and colleagues.

His confusion deepens when an old fling calls to say she desperately needs his help, and then disappears. Savage's good-hearted impulse to try to discover whether she is safe plunges him into a chaos of blackmail, duplicity, and violence. And as his private world becomes more confusing and dangerous, the judge presides over a series of cases that carry characters, crimes, and ethical questions in and out of the novel. Savage wrestles with each defendant's level of mens rea, or guilty mind; the accused are culpable but feel innocent, while the judge's double life plunges him deeper into a miasma of guilt.

The novel is an excruciating slow-motion crash of chance and choices that bring Savage ever closer to a surprisingly disturbing climax. Though Parks laces Judge Savage with the necessities of a good thriller--death, passion, legal machinations, double-crosses--he understands that the most baffling mystery is not in the heat and action of crime, but the murky inner life of conscience and decision. BRENDAN KILEY

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