AMERICAN GIRLMary Cantwell.Random House.209 pages. $20."American Girl"...



Mary Cantwell.

Random House.

209 pages. $20.

"American Girl" is a joyous book. Author Mary Cantwell remembers her childhood in Bristol, R.I., a typical American town in the 1930s: "Bristol Harbor is enclosed by two claws, a big claw which is the town itself and a little claw called Poppasquash Point -- and sailboats dance on it in summer. Lobster boats plow through it all year round and so does the dumpy Prudence Island ferry."

She reminds readers of the way we were -- Jack Benny on the radio, a white graduation dress that "falls like a cloud," the smell of saltwater, sachet and privet. Most of all, there was a sense of family, friends and home as comfortable as flannel. Her reminiscences are a perfect setup for sentimental ramblings, but Ms. Cantwell's solid talent kicks in and produces instead a deliciously detailed, humorous and affectionate look at life (and death) in her time and place.

Bristol was many-faceted, composed of Irish Catholics, Portuguese and Italian immigrants. The young Mary is open to the customs and foibles of all the groups as she becomes an adolescent with typical dreams and yearnings that accompany growth. She writes centrally of her parents and younger sister, Diana, and of her grandparents -- "Ganny," who wears starched wash-dresses under an apron, and "Gampa," who once owned a bar. Ms. Cantwell makes little of her bout with polio, which was then a killer, and is generally gently self-deprecating, another of her gifts. Early on, she was famous for being a "good reader," which obviously gave her a feel for language. "Ganny" packed her head with stories, which she has happily shared with her readers. This book reads like a collaboration between Robert Ludlum and Danielle Steel. Janice Weber's first espionage novel is related in first person by violinist Leslie Frost, who moonlights as "Smith," star agent of the super-secret Seven Sisters team.

While on tour in Leipzig, Germany, Frost/Smith stumbles on a murky crypto-fascist plot that has festered for 45 years in east Germany. (This is pulp espionage, as self-consciously wry and glitzy as it is implausible). American foreign policy and music merchandising are skewered with equal venom. And Ms. Weber's distaff approach is a welcome departure from the terse macho standard of the genre.



Jack Higgins.


320 pages. $22.95.

After the disappointing novel "The Eagle Has Flown," Jack Higgins has fine-tuned his writing talents to tell one of his most exciting tales.

Mr. Higgins has taken the real-life (and unexplained) situation o a mortar attack on the British prime minister's home on Feb. 7, 1991, and filled in a possible scenario of who did it and why. As the gulf war begins, operatives of Saddam Hussein hire master terrorist Sean Dillon to strike a death blow to the Coalition Forces. The target is British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher while she is on a visit to France. That attempt fails, so Dillon, the assassin, sets his sights instead on John Major, Thatcher's successor, while the new Prime Minister is conducting a meeting of the war council at 10 Downing St. in London.

Sean Dillon is an elusive, mysterious figure who has been in hiding for many years, an all-too-plausible character.

The story is well written and has a walloping surprise ending. From the beginning, in which the Iraqis are trying to find the right individual to do their dirty work, to the smashing ending, the story races along from France to Britain to Ireland with strong, well-developed characters and sustained suspense. Mr. Higgins once again shows why he is one of the top authors of this type of story.


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