Express Reviews 

What should be on your nightstand this month.

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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

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