The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham's Treasure by Herge (Little Brown, $8.99 apiece).

In anticipation of the Steven Spiel-berg-Peter Jackson film based on Herge's popular Belgian comic strip about intrepid young reporter Tintin, Little Brown has published marvelous Young Readers Edition paperbacks (the titles listed plus six more) featuring the original art and story pages along with fun, fascinating "behind the scenes" notes about the background of the stories and images. In the first book Tintin buys a model ship for his friend, Captain Haddock, only to discover that the model holds a clue to finding pirate treasure. The second continues the story as Tintin and Haddock set sail to find the shipwreck of the Unicorn and treasure of notorious pirate Red Rackham. (The movie, "The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn!," opening Friday, is drawn from the first two books.) Notes at the end of the first book include biographical detail about the cartoonist, whose real name was Georges Remi, a timeline (the first comic appeared in 1929 and the last was published in 1976), interesting historical notes (the dearth of vehicles reflects the gasoline rationing of World War II) and such colorful tidbits as the fact that Herge sometimes drew portraits of his friends in the cartoon panels. Herge drew on a vast archive of images of real places and objects, whether it be the uniform of a Belgian policeman or a newspaper photo of an experimental German "shark" submarine. How interesting that he modeled Professor Calculus after Swiss scientist and inventor Auguste Piccard (although making the professor much shorter) and that he based his cartoon of Sir Francis Haddock fighting to save his ship on a painting of the last battle of Blackbeard from 1718. It will be interesting to see how Spielberg translates to the screen Herge's quaint humor and odd characters and how children reared on all kinds of wondrous animated movies will react to the results.

—Jean Westmoore


The Profession by Steven Pressfield; Crown ($25)

In this superb new action-thriller, novelist Steven Pressfield has disturbing news for you: The world has only begun to get more complex, more dangerous and more ethically murky, and the United States "has lost its way and is struggling desperately merely to hang on."

Pressfield's reputation was made by historical novels set in the days of the Spartans and Alexander the Great, including "The Afghan Campaign" and "Gates of Fire." Then came "Killing Rommel," a tale of World War II. Now he's turned his attention to the future: 2032, after Long Beach, Calif., has been nuked, the Iranians and Iraqis have fought three wars, the Saudis are freaking out, the oil-rich "stans" above Afghanistan are up for grabs, oil companies have private armies and battalions of mercenaries— the heirs of Blackwater et al.—boldly roam the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.

Pressfield, a former Marine, is no armchair theorizer. His book is a compelling mix of modern weaponry, modern communications, modern politics and the warrior's ancient ethos of honor and loyalty. It moves quickly and with deadly precision.

Into the action comes a defrocked Marine general, James Salter, and a loyalist, Gilbert Gentilhomme. Their confrontation, which builds slowly and ends with heart-pounding suddenness, is the center of novel.

If "The Profession" has literary antecedents, the closest may be "Seven Days in May," the 1962 political-military thriller by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.

In the future, Pressfield posits, electronic and Internet media have become even more ubiquitous, more doctrinaire, more corrupt and corrupting. The blogosphere seems free and unregulated but, truth be told, smart players like Salter have learned to manipulate it:

Even though Pressfield imagines gizmos not yet invented, or not yet perfected to the nth-degree, there is nothing science-fictiony about "The Profession." This is the modern world taken to its logical and frightening extreme.

—Los Angeles Times


Rome:A Cultural, Visual and Personal History by Robert Hughes; Knopf ($35)

Rome is magnificent. It's also a bewildering jumble of classical ruins, Baroque fountains, fascist monuments and churches.

Robert Hughes's massive "Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History" (Knopf, $35) sometimes feels similarly incoherent as it wanders from literature in one chapter to politics in another, then detours to what the foreigners in town were doing in yet another.

Only at the end does the author discover, in the ancient city, something like an organizing principle: "We cannot make the mistake with Romans of supposing that they were refined," he writes. "They tended to be brutes, arrivistes, nouveaux-riches. Naturally, that is why they continue to fascinate us, we imagine being like them."

The golden thread that links the Rome of Augustus to the Rome of Berlusconi, in other words, is vulgar excess. "What they liked best to do," Hughes writes, "was astonish people, with spectacle, expense, violence or a fusion of all three."

As an Australian, Hughes was a prototypical provincial, agog at the city's splendors, when he arrived there in 1959. As a Jesuit-educated lapsed Catholic, he brings an understanding to religious art and pomp that seldom tempers his hostility to the church.

He adores Rome even as he recoils from the cruelty, the arrogance and the monomania that made it what it is. The thrum of brutality that runs through its history nauseates him, though it elicits nothing like the boiling rage toward the British Empire that was part of what made "The Fatal Shore" (1986), his history of Australia's convict founding, such a majestic and ghastly book.

He's scandalized by the various sackings that the city's ruthless emperors and popes carried out, notably of Constantinople in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade: "It had never been imagined that a huge Christian force, sworn to eject the Muslims from Palestine, would stop off on the way to at-tack a Christian city."

—Bloomberg News