THE COPPER BEECH.
345 pages. $22.50. On the surface, Shancarrig is a quiet town in Ireland's midlands. One of its few landmarks is the stalwart copper beech tree in front of the Shancarrig School. For generations, children have carved their names and aspirations into its trunk. But the town's outward calm dissolves as the children grow and their optimism is challenged.
Maura Brennan has a retarded child and is abandoned by her husband. Nora and Jim Kelly are successful in every area of their lives except for one -- they are childless. Maddy Ross must
balance her public life with a secret love.
In her previous novels ("Light a Penny Candle" and "The Lilac Bus"), Maeve Binchy has used the same basic concept to explore life in Ireland. She develops eight characters as they cope with modern problems. For a lesser author, the results would be synthetic or contrived, but in Ms. Binchy's capable hands, the results are neither sugarcoated nor easily resolved. "The Copper Beech" is every bit up to the standards of the author's previous work.
It's no wonder the Victorian era is a popular setting for mysteries; after all, that was a time when secrecy was virtually a way of life, since nothing was more important than Keeping Up Appearances. Secrets play a paramount role in "Dead As Dead Can Be," the debut novel by Montgomery County authors Jo-Ann Power and Barbara Cummings (writing as Ann Crowleigh).
Twin sisters Mirinda and Clare Clively possess a fine family name their grandfather was a marquess -- but the family fortune has dwindled, forcing them to erect town houses on the grounds of their estate. During the demolition of a long-vacant carriage house, the fur-swaddled corpse of an infant is found in the chimney. The baby has been dead for decades, but once the story reaches the papers, the scandal takes 1870s London by storm.
Headstrong Mirinda decides she and Clare must find out who killed and hid the child. Unfortunately, the Clivelys' troubles are only beginning; an acquaintance of the family has his throat cut, and a Clively cousin is accused of the crime.
"Dead As Dead Can Be" sometimes suffers from an overdose of purple prose, but the authors have created several winningly eccentric characters, especially the twins' Aunt Prudence, elderly author of racy "penny dreadful" novels. The book's ending sets up a sequel, and with so many Clively relatives and new tenants around, there is certainly no shortage of prospective victims and suspects.
WHY IS THIS COUNTRY DANCING? A ONE-MAN SAMBA TTHE BEAT OF BRAZIL.
Simon & Schuster.
319 pages. $22.
"If you listen to my music, you will be saved!" So bossa nova star Tom Jobin tells travel writer John Krich at the beginning of the latter's samba through Brazil's music world, and although Mr. Krich isn't exactly saved -- having subtitled a previous travel book "Around the World in a Bad Mood" -- he clearly isn't much interested in redemption.
He does tag along on a voodoo-like candomble ritual outside Rio and talk to many of Brazil's musical gods: Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, among others. Mr. Krich's attempts to make his prose overtly musical is off-putting at first, but he finds a comfortable beat.
Mr. Krich attends numerous carnival celebrations and provides the obligatory tourist-in-the-Second-or-Third-World observations ("Is Rio really Paris with jungle or Calcutta with beaches?"), but the book comes alive when the author lets the musicians talk about, and the audience sway to, their music.