By Curtis Sittenfeld

To characterize Curtis Sittenfeld's new novel, "Sisterland," as an ideal beach read isn't meant as an insult. The author of "American Wife," a fantastic account of a protagonist clearly modeled after Laura Bush who ascends from a small town in Wisconsin to the White House, is a skilled storyteller.

Her new novel isn't as sappy as the jacket description implies. It's the story of identical twins - Kate and Violet - who are raised by an emotionally absent father and a depressed mother and share the gift (or curse) of "senses," or an ability to see people's secrets and events before they happen.

While one sister embraces the gift and uses it to her advantage both socially and financially, the other sister hides it and consciously ignores it.

Sittenfeld delivers a well-told, compelling story about characters so real they settle into your psyche like old friends. It's a novel about growing up, making big choices and living with mistakes and regrets.

It's not perfect - Sittenfeld asks her readers to suspend disbelief more than once and swallow circumstances and situations that seem unlikely to happen in real life - but it's a fast, smooth, guilt-free read.

Kim Curtis, The Associated Press

"Crime of Privilege"

By Walter Walker

How much wealth does it take to be above the law? What rules come with being a member of the privileged class? Those are among the questions posed in Walter Walker's mystery, "Crime of Privilege."

In 1996, a young lawyer named George Becket attended a party thrown by a friend of a friend. He watched two men take advantage of a young woman who was too drunk to stop them. Becket intervened before it got really ugly, and he helped her get into her car. Later, when given the opportunity to tell the truth about the events of that night, he balked. Soon after, the young woman killed herself.

Twelve years later, Becket is working for the district attorney's office. He regrets not speaking out, but the sad truth is that he has his life and job because he kept silent.

Years earlier, a murder occurred at a country club, but no promising suspects emerged. Feeling guilty for not doing the right thing at the party, Becket reluctantly agrees to help the victim's father investigate the crime.

"Crime of Privilege" strives to be a mix of Scott Turow and a family saga, but it's a giant slog. Becket is a bit dull. He's the narrator of the story, and that slows things down to almost a crawl. Too many characters and an obvious finale don't help.

Jeff Ayers, The Associated Press

'Junius and Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey'

By Peter Carlson

Among the tens of thousands of books written about the American Civil War, there are dense histories of campaigns, profiles of leaders, compilations of battlefield photos or soldiers' letters home. Then, once in a while, you run across just a really good yarn.

That's what Peter Carlson has written in his nonfiction account of two New York Tribune reporters' unique experience of the war. They witnessed fighting or its aftermath at Shiloh, Antietam and other slaughters. They met Abraham Lincoln more than once. But mostly this is a story about their capture and 19-month imprisonment by Confederates, how they survived and, amazingly, how they plugged into a complex network that risked all to help prisoners escape to seemingly unreachable Union lines.

At the heart of this buddy story are two distinctive characters, close friends who sometimes infuriate and often help each other - even nursing each other through life-threatening illness - while seeking out news by very different methods and writing it in sharply contrasting styles. Carlson portrays their relationship and the wild ride of their wartime experience with emotional depth and often with humor.

Describing the "self-conscious romantic" Junius Browne's fateful decision to change careers from banking, Carlson writes that he chose "a trade that has traditionally served as a refuge for the skeptical, the curious, the opinionated, the semi-adventurous, the quasi-literary and the vaguely talented - journalism."

Browne comes off as a bit of a dilettante, classically educated and always ready with a bon mot but not necessarily ready to meet deadlines. Although he produces some dispatches that rightly make his reputation in New York, we also see him missing one major battle altogether and concocting a detailed but largely fictional account.

As a journalist, Albert Richardson is Browne's opposite: tireless in his reporting, gifted and comfortable as an interviewer, and elegantly spare in his writing.

In the end, each produces a best-selling book about their shared ordeal, and Carlson mines these rich veins and many others to chronicle the two men's lives and the trials they get through.

For a time, they make the best of their prison experience, bribing guards for privileges and food, but as the war grinds the Confederacy down, conditions worsen drastically and they volunteer to help the exhausted prison medical staff keep sick, starving prisoners alive.

As they prepare an escape plan that will finally succeed, Richardson uses free moments during work in the hospital to copy names of prisoners who died there, compiling a list of 1,200 names that he will smuggle out, publish and eventually share in personal correspondence with their families.

Use in the title of "Adventures" suggests a frivolousness that does not fit this book.

The author has produced a work that entertains as well as educates and lets readers see the endlessly chronicled Civil War through a truly fresh lens.

Christopher Sullivan, The Associated Press