The Return of the Caravels, by Antonio Lobo Antunes (Grove, $13). Renaissance and modern Portugal collide in this novel inspired by The Lusiads, the national epic about Vasco da Gama and the founding of the Portuguese empire. "This simultaneously sublime and disorienting reworking . . . evokes on the page a literary version of those maelstroms that Age of Discovery expeditions encountered at the ironically misnamed and horrifyingly lethal Cape of Good Hope. . . . Scenes of modern-day Lisbon morph into memories of the Portuguese occupation of Angola, and elements from the past bleed into the present. . . . Antunes's aim throughout this bubbling cauldron of a novel is to show that the vessels that opened an empire never really left," wrote Melvin Jules Bukiet in his review of the hardcover edition last year.

The Rotters' Club, by Jonathan Coe (Vintage, $14). Two young people, Sophie and Patrick, meet in contemporary Berlin; a chance encounter between her mother and his father, who knew each other long ago in Birmingham, England, has brought them together. "Come with me, then, Patrick," Sophie says, inviting him to reconstruct the history that produced them. "Back to a country that neither of us would recognize, probably. Britain, 1973. . . . Just think of it! . . . A world that had never heard of Princess Diana or Tony Blair, never thought for a moment of going to war over Kosovo or Iraq. . . . Sometimes people even had to do without electricity. Imagine!" So begins this antic, politically charged recreation of the lives and times of four Birmingham lads coming of age in that free-for-all known as the 1970s.

The Company: A Novel of the CIA, by Robert Littell (Penguin, $15). The author of The Defection of A.J. Lewinter and other high-end spy thrillers returns with what our reviewer Patrick Anderson described last year as an "extremely long, often brilliant, sometimes maddening and always readable portrait of the CIA's Cold War adventures from 1950 to 1995. Besides being hugely entertaining, The Company is a serious look at how our nation exercised power, for good and ill, in the second half of the 20th century. Although its story plays out on a worldwide stage, it is at bottom a Washington novel, one of the most important I have ever read."


Anthony Blunt: His Lives, by Miranda Carter (Picador, $18). Cambridge-trained art historian, Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, director of the Courtauld Institute, Soviet spy -- Anthony Blunt had quite a resume{acute}. The "Fourth Man" of the notorious Cambridge spy network -- after Guy Burgess, Donald McLean and Kim Philby -- Blunt wasn't publicly exposed until 1979, decades after his co-conspirators had been unmasked and fled to unhappy fates in the USSR. "From the moment of his exposure," writes Miranda Carter, "Anthony Blunt became a man about whom anything could be said. He was described as 'the spy with no shame.' He was 'an arrogant evil poseur.' He was a 'treacherous Communist pouf.' . . . A calmer synopsis of the primary material has become possible, and it is that which I have set out to provide, in the belief that the facts about Blunt are as interesting as any of the fantasies."

A Life's Work: Becoming a Mother, by Rachel Cusk (Picador, $13). Anyone who has looked after a baby knows that it's not all smiles and giggles. English novelist Rachel Cusk (Savings Agnes) felt ambushed by motherhood, as she relates in this often grim (some will say too grim) look at the realities of tending to one's offspring: "I believe that my will can keep me afloat, can save me from being submerged; but consciouness itself is unseated, undermined, by the process of reproduction. By having a baby I have created a rival consciousness, one towards which my bond of duty is such that it easily gains power over me and holds me in an enfeebling tithe. . . . I become an undone task, a phone call I can't seem to make, a bill I don't get around to paying. My life has the seething atmosphere of an untended garden."

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, by Mary S. Lovell (Norton, $18.95). Between the first and second world wars, nobody was as glamorous or as fun-loving as England's six Mitford sisters: Nancy, Pam, Diana, Unity, Jessica (known as Decca) and Deborah (called Debo). Nancy became a novelist (Love in a Cold Climate); Decca, Diana and Debo also wrote (memoirs, autobiographical novels, muckraking journalism). Two -- Diana and Unity -- infamously fell in love with fascism. Lovell writes, "I suppose I had in mind . . . a frothy biography of life in Society between the wars. . . . I had not realized how quickly or how completely the mirth of the sisters' childhood disintegrated into conflict, unexpected private passions, and tragedies."

-- Jennifer Howard