Express Reviews 

What should be on your nightstand this month.

The Hotel on the Roof of the World
By Alec Le Sueur
RDR, $17.95

The hotel on which this memoir centers might have been the least mundane Holiday Inn that ever was, situated in Lhasa as Tibet creaked toward the 20th century just a decade or so before the 21st began. Le Sueur, a Jersey island native, worked there as sales and marketing manager for five years starting in 1988, and certainly that stint generated its share of incredible stories: chaotic attempts to stimulate occupancy with a Miss Tibet contest; the rep from a nearby Chinese airline agency sentenced to death for embezzling ticket sales, her family billed for the bullet used in the execution; the almost military-like strategy needed for a son to successfully sneak a look at the cremation of his mother, who died while a guest at the hotel. Le Sueur seems most fascinated, however, by the more everyday grisliness of coping with life in a developing region, from the white-knuckle danger of commercial flights into the country to the hundreds of rats infesting the hotel itself -- though, he gleefully adds, if you're grossed out by that, you should see how disgusting the other hotels in town are! He can't leave it at that, and the book feels not so much like an inside look at an exotic country as a few nights cooped up with the kind of perpetual complainer satirized by Monty Python in the travel-agent sketch. Le Sueur's is a smarmy and often disagreeable humor, often looking for the worst in his surroundings and the hotel's guests, and usually finding it. -- Richie Unterberger

Langrishe, Go Down
By Aidan Higgins
Dalkey Archive, $12.95

Long unavailable in America, Higgins' minor classic of aristocratic decline unfolds in the drowsy Irish countryside, in the period between the world wars. Springfield, the ancestral estate of the Langrishe family, sits idle. Its fields go untilled. Workmen fell the trees for lumber. Inside the house, the three middle-aged Langrishe daughters huddle in their beds, brooding on their private griefs. Imogen, the youngest, thinks back on the brief, happy time in her late thirties when, nearly hysterical with virginity, she offered herself to the unscrupulous itinerant scholar Otto Beck. Through fragments of conversation and snatches of interior dialogue, Higgins traces their relationship from its ecstatic beginnings to its inevitable ruin. He sets the affair against a backdrop of universal decay: water-stained ceilings, crumbling tombstones, a frog at the bottom of a grave, its eyes filming over, "as if it had enough." In lesser hands, this might have become the stuff of dime-store gothic romance. But Higgins is a masterful stylist. He sustains even the most lurid conceits with writing that is at once daring and precise, vivid and economical. Sentence by sentence, Langrishe is impeccable -- even to a fault. Its pure negation of life keeps it from greatness, suffocating the characters like specimens in a bell jar. They make exquisite corpses, though. Expertly crafted prose makes this newly reissued novel, originally published in 1966, one of this year's most dazzling discoveries. -- Chris Ulbrich

The Lovers of Algeria
By Anouar Benmalek
Graywolf, $16

In the late 1990s, a bloody civil war erupted in Algeria and more than 150,000 people lost their lives. The government cracked down on fundamentalists -- whom the military had blocked from taking power -- and the fundamentalists responded by abducting or killing Westerners. One can understand how baffled Algerians would be, then, by the spectacle of a 65-year-old Swiss woman meandering through downtown Algiers without a tangible sense of fear. This is how we meet Anna, the heroine of this novel, which was a runaway best-seller in France and perhaps the most significant Algerian novel to move in French literary circles since Albert Camus' early writings. The first thread of Benmalek's story goes back to Anna's romance with her first husband Nassreddine, whom she met in Algeria in the '50s. The second thread begins in 1997, the year she loses her second husband and makes a pilgrimage back to Algiers to look for Nassreddine. Anna finds an unlikely protector in nine-year-old street urchin Jallal, who has run away from home and makes a living selling peanuts and cigarettes. Shuffling between these two narratives, the novelist presents a prismatic, if didactic, view of his native country's history over the last fifty years. Fiction should never be a kind of political wish fulfillment, but when scripted powerfully, it can imagine the impossible. This searing and important tale has done just that. It is now up to Benmalek's countrymen to live up to their part of the bargain. -- John Freeman

The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth Houghton Mifflin, $24.95

The Canadian border has been sealed shut, the opposition arrested. The nation's most strident critic, tabloid columnist Walter Winchell, has been felled by an assassin's bullet, and all of this in the wake of riots that have killed 122 American Jews. It's 1942 and, in the febrile imagination of National Book Award-winner Roth, America is galloping toward fascism -- all because Charles Lindbergh, the national aviation hero and unabashed anti-Semite in both real life and this novel, defeated FDR in the 1940 election. Told through the eyes of nine-year-old "Philip Roth" and set in the author's native Newark, New Jersey, The Plot Against America uses history as a springboard to explore the collision of politics and family life. In this chilling fantasy, fascism is not something murmuring in the hinterlands but a force that corrodes a family's psyche, pitting son against father, sister against sister, and a young boy against much of reality. It's impossible to read The Plot without pondering it as allegory. Linking the current administration with capital-F Fascism is the stuff of a tweaked-out fringe, but the climate of fear that haunts these pages is sadly familiar. Lindbergh's slogan, "Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War!," bears more than a slight resemblance to Dick Cheney's suggestion that a vote for Kerry is a vote for Osama. Roth does not go in for "it could happen here" aphorisms, but by illustrating what it might have looked like, he scares us as deeply as any Code Orange alert. -- John Dicker

Skels
By Maggie Dubris
Soft Skull, $14.95

"John Paul Saint-Brick. He was just a little joke," Dubris writes in Skels, "and then all of a sudden, it didn't seem it had ever been funny. All his bizarre moves, the weird scenes he orchestrated. They were hilarious, until we hit the punch line." Dubris orchestrates a lot of weird scenes in this tale of a poet and paramedic careening her way through 1978 Manhattan, chasing a life similar to that of the heroine's beloved idol Rimbaud: homeless encampments bristling with menace and magic; Harlem numbers parlors; billboards high over Broadway from which elaborate, holographic seascapes are broadcast. And though these milieus are richly painted, the characters who inhabit them are sadly no more than jokes themselves, occasionally making it to a punch line, but never much more. Physically, they're notable: the acid-gobbling artist who creates the holograms is a youthful, blond mad scientist; the homeless street musician at the narrative center is visible largely because of his albinism; and a schoolmate of the narrator arrives mid-novel as an all-false porn star named Melissa Mounds. But not one of the many characters thrown relentlessly at the reader throughout the book ever reveals him- or herself beyond a physical description or a collection of character tics. The narrator, a young girl from Ohio rather clumsily named Orlie Breton, is a mystery above all. While questioning the nature of reality, Skels only scratches its surface. -- Stefanie Kalem

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury USA, $27.95

If you pay any attention to book reviews, and apparently you do, then you know Clarke's much-hyped first novel is an Austen/Dickens/Tolkien hybrid, literary fantasy's new bible, and a prime example of the English-speaking world's current fascination with historical introspection. You also know that it's rather long -- 782 pages -- and that its 185 footnotes establish a complex magico-historical background for the narrative, which takes place in Regency England and follows the exploits of two "practical" (as opposed to theoretical) magicians. Their talents and personalities are contrasted to great effect: Mr. Norrell is a crotchety reactionary who won't let anyone read his precious books, and Jonathan Strange is young, innovative, and eminently likable. Despite their differences, they're gentlemen at heart, so they use their magic to serve king and country in the Napoleonic Wars. Thus controlled, the magic they practice seems mundane, technological, almost a stand-in for the Industrial Revolution; English history is like a scientific experiment in which only one variable has been changed. Is this a success for Clarke, whose convincing period prose and historical detail transport the reader to a very real universe? A few hundred pages of droll drawing-room antics and sublimely Dickensian characters are educational, but not quite enchanting: She should have unleashed the hounds sooner. Things begin to pick up only when the magicians' disagreement about the historical importance of the mysterious Raven King (who once ruled northern England) leads to their falling out, freeing an ancient magic unencumbered by gentlemanly restraint. -- Nora Sohnen

Light
By M. John Harrison
Bantam Spectra, $16

This is hard science fiction, heavy on the science and light on the fiction. Pages are devoted to baffling fractals and weird mathematics while the actual plot gets short shrift. In that plot, Michael Kearney is a brilliant physicist who turns to serial killing to repel the "shrander," which is apparently some sort of malevolent personification of mathematics. Why does killing people ward it off? That's only one of the many mysteries Harrison never resolves. Kearney, a self-absorbed twit, spends whatever time he's not spouting off about physics outrunning the shrander while his clingy ex-wife Anna tags along. The novel's two subplots both take place in the distant future -- an amnesiac space adventurer joins the circus as a fortune-teller and a starship captain who is fused with her ship tries to become human again -- and are far more interesting, with lurid descriptions of aliens, genetically tailored clones, and preteen gun punks. The space-opera segments are so chock-full of fun exotica and off-the-wall theatrics that they're almost enough to compensate for the book's clumsy conclusion, where all three plotlines almost converge but not quite. For three hundred pages, Harrison strings readers along, promising some mind-blowing, universe-altering revelation at the end, but when we get there the big secret is nothing but a cliché straight out of Star Trek gussied up with some obtuse quantum jargon. Light will thrill physics nerds but might leave other readers in the dark. -- Mike Rosen-Molina

Stella Descending
By Linn Ullmann, translated by Barbara J. Haveland
Anchor, $13

"Oslo is not a city where people are in the habit of craning their necks and looking up," Norwegian novelist Ullmann writes in this strange tale of love and death. "Oslo is a city where people look either straight ahead or at the ground, which is why no one ever notices the things that are forever happening high above." It is one of those happenings-high-above that drives Ullmann's tale: Stella, the book's enigmatic center, plunges from the roof of an apartment building. We meet her ex- and current husbands, her teenage daughter, and those who watched her fall. Our acquaintance with her is at first tangential, as if we were house-sitting and had the opportunity to examine her bookshelf and dresser drawers. Stella herself does not address us until nearly two-thirds of the way through the book. Her fresh and necessarily vulgar voice breaks up the pearly mist of Ullmann's too-beautiful prose. Apart from Stella and her daughter -- a vibrant and funny girl who offers memories in equal measure with horny adolescent fantasies -- the novel is populated by characters whose speech takes a distant, mysterious tone. Ullmann's technique is thoughtful and her writing fluid, but Stella is marred by too much setup and too little payoff. Though squat, flat Oslo is not a city of neck-craners, the book could benefit from a closer examination of the woman atop that ultimately fatal height. -- Allison Landa

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