Tales of sex in Wisconsin and deterioration in Venice

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The author of the interesting domestic dramas "A Map of the World" and "When Madeline Was Young," Hamilton takes the minimalist route here, a 214-page novella that reflects its slight nature.

It's about two women in Hamilton's native Wisconsin -- Laura Rider, who runs a nursery, and Jenna Faroli, a National Public Radio chat-show host, and their two husbands, Charlie and Frank, respectively.

"Laura Rider's Masterpiece"
By Jane Hamilton
Grand Central Publishing ($22.99)

Charlie has one talent -- lovemaking. Frank, a state judge and epicure, would rather rub warm butter over Cornish game hens than his wife.

And, Laura, heading toward middle age, is no longer interested in her hubby's hobby.

Seldom in any modern novel do we find sex so diminished, except when Charlie and Jenna finally discover each other.

Hamilton's gimmick is an e-mail exchange begun by Laura playing Charlie writing to Jenna with the goal of getting material for a romance novel she wants to write.

And then, the wrong computer key is struck and ....

I wish there was more to this pleasant, oddly unaffecting piece of fiction. I know Hamilton wants her readers to sympathize with the issues of women at middle age, but when she gives them uninteresting men to bounce off, I hunt in vain for the point.

"About Face"
By Donna Leon
Grove Atlantic ($24)

"About Face" by Donna Leon (Grove Atlantic, $24)

In her previous 17 books about her adopted city of Venice and fictional police detective, Guido Brunetti, Donna Leon has been moving from petty crimes to big ones, mostly about the despoiling of her beloved Italy through exploitation of immigrants and pollution of the air and water.

The whole place is a stinking mess with organized crime at the root of all, abetted by indifferent governments and officials on the take.

The usually calm Brunetti, one of contemporary crime literature's most engaging cops, is losing some of his subtle, understated style as his creator grows more shrill in denouncing the problem.

Symbolizing the clumsy efforts to mask the deterioration is the character of Franca Marinello, a once-lovely woman with a botched face-lift. She's a sympathetic creature with the right kind of secret that sets the wheels of justice in motion.

As a writer, Leon has mastered an engaging way with the Venetian culture, always the strongest element in her books. It's the preachy side of her -- an understandable reaction to the appalling conditions in Italy -- that needs to be mastered as well.

Contact Bob Hoover at 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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