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Thriller

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer; Minotaur Books, 408 pages ($26.99)

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Olen Steinhauer’s recent three-volume Milo Weaver series was about the Tourists, a top-secret CIA spy unit. By the third installment, the plot had thickened so much that it bordered on the impenetrable. So it’s something of a relief to find him writing a stand-alone, “The Cairo Affair,” that has only the CIA, the Bosnian War and the most inflamed parts of the Middle East on its playing field.

“The Cairo Affair” starts in Eastern Europe in 1991, when Sophie and Emmett Kohl are newlyweds fresh out of Harvard, eager to see the world.

Twenty years later, the Kohls are in Budapest, where he is a deputy consul, and she is bored. In the run-up to the Arab Spring, they remember that Hosni Mubarak’s Cairo had been a good place to get out of; and the Kohls are enjoying Budapest just out of a sense of relief. During dinner at a restaurant, Sophie confesses to an affair she had in Cairo with a man named Stan. She thinks this is the reason her marriage to Emmett will never be the same, but she’s underestimating that by a long shot. Along comes a sinister mystery man, pointing a pistol at Emmett and saying, “I here for you.” And Sophie is a widow at a restaurant table, just like that.

These are only the beginnings of Steinhauer’s elaborate, sophisticated spy tale, a long, twisty road full of cleverly placed potholes and unexpected turns. It’s the kind of book in which a character thought to be spying for Hungary might possibly be spying for Libya; in which Moammar Gadhafi is enjoying his last desperate moments in power and willing to try anything in the name of self-protection; and in which American operatives are suspected of trying to co-opt every aspect of the Arab Spring, even if they have not made plans to do so.

– Janet Maslin, New York Times

CHILDREN’S

Stella’s Starliner by Rosemary Wells; Candlewick Press ($15.99).

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There are shades of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” in Rosemary Wells’ lustrous illustrations of the night sky in this charming new picture book with its gently delivered message about what matters most in life. Wells, creator of the Max and Ruby stories and author/and or illustrator of more than 120 books for children (including the excellent mystery, “The Man in the Woods”), beautifully evokes the simple joys of family life in this story of young Stella who lives with her parents in the Starliner, a “completely silver” house, “silver as a comet in the sky.” Stella’s delight in the comforts of her snug little home is spoiled by a band of bullies who make fun of her trailer home as a “tin can” and tell her “You must be poor.” From there, the story soars in a surprising but satisfying direction. Wells’ trademark illustrations picture adorable creatures full of personality. Hers is a unique brand of magic.

– Jean Westmoore

FICTION

Gemini by Carol Cassella; Simon & Schuster ($25.99)

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Carol Cassella is a practicing anesthesiologist. Her medically based novels – her hit 2008 debut, “Oxygen” and the 2010 follow-up, “Healer” – typically boast a strong ring of truth, despite their fictional settings. She veers off course with her latest, “Gemini,” not because the medical conditions she writes about are impossible, but because at least one of them is so one-in-a-million unlikely as to seem invented, even if it’s not. “Gemini” also suffers from “what genre am I?” syndrome. It’s partly a mystery, with a Jane Doe patient brought in to a Seattle hospital after a serious accident on the rural Olympic Peninsula. Although the mystery of Jane’s identity will be solved for even the most haphazard reader within 50 pages or so, we’re still left to wonder how this woman ended up critically injured by the side of the road.

The book is also part medical-ethics drama: Jane remains unconscious and unidentified as her condition worsens, so who should make the possibly end-of-life decisions that must be addressed?

– Joy Tipping, Dallas Morning News