Feb. 1 (Bloomberg) -- A post-Oscars gathering at a famous director's house turns into a marathon conversation about the ambitions and neuroses of the Hollywood elite in Jane Smiley's loquacious new novel ``Ten Days in the Hills'' (Knopf, $26).
Smiley's 1991 Pulitzer Prize winner, ``A Thousand Acres,'' was a modern reimagining of ``King Lear.'' This time she takes Boccaccio's ``Decameron'' as her template.
Ten voices interweave into a cacophony of self-obsession as the host and his guests -- including a writer, an actor, hangers- on and offspring -- watch movies in the screening room, yack endlessly about Hollywood, debate the just-launched war in Iraq and dream aloud. One even considers making a pornographic version of ``My Dinner With Andre.''
Some readers may find the characters pretentious and exasperating, but Smiley's bracing candor about desire, both personal and professional, is engrossing.
Other highlights this month:
``Knots'' by Nuruddin Farah (Riverhead, $25.95). The latest novel from the acclaimed Somali writer vividly tells the story of Cambara, who has emigrated to Canada but returns to Mogadishu to mourn the death of her son. In her war-ravaged homeland she finds succor among women peace activists, who, paradoxically, help her enlist mercenaries to reclaim her family home from a vicious warlord.
``Finn'' by Jon Clinch (Random House, $23.95). In ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,'' when Pap, Huck's father, is found dead he's surrounded by a strange assortment of odds and ends, among them a wooden leg, two black cloth masks and some ``women's underclothes.'' Clinch's intriguing aim in his debut novel is to explain the mystery by imagining the drunken old man's childhood and family.
``Red Cat'' by Peter Spiegelman (Knopf, $22.95). In Spiegelman's newest thriller (after ``Black Maps,'' a Shamus Award winner, and ``Death's Little Helpers''), New York City private investigator John March, the black-sheep scion of a banking family, makes his third appearance. This time he's coming to the aid of his rich, arrogant brother, who's being threatened by a predatory Internet connection he made the mistake of sleeping with. Spiegleman's pointed riffs on banking and investment schemes are part of the pleasure.
``Lost City Radio'' by Daniel Alarcon (HarperCollins, $24.95). Alarcon's previous book, ``War by Candlelight,'' was a finalist for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Award. His new novel is worthy of comparison to Graham Greene. Its central character is a woman in a fictional South American country who uses her popular radio program to connect people with loved ones ``disappeared'' during a civil war and who gets a tip that sends her on a quest to find her own lost husband.
``The Other Side of You'' by Salley Vickers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24). Vickers, a former psychologist, delivers a graceful, cerebral novel in the form of a ping-pong therapy session. The psychoanalyst has been traumatized by the childhood death of his brother; his suicidal patient has been traumatized by the death of her Caravaggio-obsessed lover.
``Devotion'' by Howard Norman (Houghton Mifflin, $24). In this powerful study of love and marriage by the highly regarded author of ``The Bird Artist,'' a Canadian father and his new son- in-law come to blows outside a London hotel. But is it solely because the young husband has been unfaithful on his honeymoon -- or is there reason for an even deeper distrust between the men?
``Valentine: A Love Story'' by Chet Raymo (Cowley Publications, $19.95). Raymo, best known for his popular science books, returns to fiction for the first time since 1993's ``The Dork of Cork'' with an entrancing life of the martyr St. Valentine, set against the foment of the early Christian church. After the death of his powerful patron's son, Valentine, a Roman doctor, is sent to prison, where he falls in love with the beautiful blind daughter of his jailer.
``The Time It Takes to Fall'' by Margaret Lazarus Dean (Simon & Schuster, $24) Dean's colorful coming-of-age novel views the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster through the eyes of a space-obsessed young girl, who's embroiled in her own parents' complicated lives in the NASA community at Florida's Cape Canaveral.
``Jamestown'' by Matthew Sharpe (Soft Skull Press, $25). With Brooklyn at war and Manhattan inhospitable, refugees flee on buses to Virginia in an ingenious post-apocalyptic satire that pits the natives (whose skin has turned red from their SPF 90 sunblock) against the unprepared interlopers. Much of the book is narrated in hilarious riffs by a trippy Pocahontas.
(Edward Nawotka is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)