Magic, identity and effervescence


For those who cannot afford a langourous vacation seaside or in some mountain aerie, imagination must serve to keep the gritty heat of summer's dog days at bay. A host of alluring new novels provides just the ticket to take one miles away.

Despite having a dozen fine novels to her credit (one, "Practical Magic," made into a not-so-fine film), Alice Hoffman remains a sorely underrated writer. Her imagistic prose and mystical themes have led some critics to classify her work (wrongly) as gothic, but Hoffman's a solid literary stylist who melds the magical with the mundane, detailing the oftimes startling foibles of daily life with incandescent prose.

"The River King" (Putnam, 336 pages, $23.95) charts the topography of the interior landscape, as do all Hoffman's novels, while also creating a palpably vivid sense of place. Class differences and the brutality they can wreak are Hoffman's subject here, at the preppy - and problem-laden - Haddan School in a small town outside Boston.

Carlin Leander, a beautiful scholarship student and August Pierce, a troubled kid with a flair for sleight of hand, are trying to reinvent themselves in a hard and fast caste system. Photography instructor Betsy Chase and local cop Abel Grey also seek reinvention. Love, history and death intervene.

Hoffman unveils her characters deftly, with practiced - and often breathtaking - legerdemain. She has particular skill at crafting believable adolescents who epitomize the tortures of youth. A tale rife with tragedy, stunning brutality and ultimate redemption, "The River King" is beautifully wrought; another acute novel by a fine, fine writer.

Dermot Healy's "Sudden Times" (Harcourt, 352 pages, $23) isn't for everyone. Ollie Ewing's a disturbing protagonist, a lost - rather, disintegrating - soul trapped between memory and reality, alternately shocked and numbed by both. Achingly human and perilously in danger of losing what's left of his faculties, Ewing pitches from job to job, girl to girl, rented room to rented room, each step uncovering something about his past that unsettles to the point of dissolution. He lands at Doyle's supermarket, grateful yet unsure, and waits out each day and night to see what will come of things in time.

What comes is an unraveling of Ewing's time in London - he's now home in Sligo, Ireland - and the cataclysmic events that overtook him there and still threaten to subsume him, in nightmare and waking, putting his very identity in question.

Healy's that Irish stereotype - the graceful, intense, deeply evocative writer whose craft is so exquisitely honed as to rivet the reader. He lures with sly wit and sharp language, then spins a dizzying turn as he reveals the truly dark place into which Ewing - and we, the readers - have been propelled, a place of seamy back street deals, brutal violence and murder. A touch of Kafka, a splash of Joyce, a pinch of Yeats and O'Brien plus heaps of fresh, clean prose make this metamorphosing portrait of a broken young man a demanding and disturbing read.

More delicious than disturbing, Madeleine St. John's short, tight novel of manners, "A Pure, Clear Light" (Carroll & Graf, 240 pages, $22), trims relationships to the bone even as it brims with delightfully effervescent dialogue.

London TV hack Simon Beaufort hasn't quite gotten to the perfect script he's always wanted to write. Thus when wife Flora takes their three children on holiday to France, he hopes the month will afford him the chance to get down to it. He gets down to it - just not with the script. At a dinner with friends he meets accountant Gillian Selkirk ("the name writhes," a companion notes. "Does she?") and is utterly lost. Meanwhile Flora renews herself and the faith (Catholicism) Simon bullied her into divesting when they married 15 years earlier, on her own journey toward fulfillment.

St. John has such an ear for a certain set of Londoners that reading "A Pure, Clear Light" is like a brief sojourn to Hammersmith and Camden Town. A delightful, witty novel short enough to read in an afternoon but deep enough to linger well beyond.

Devotees of the New Yorker and Talk know Amy Bloom's nonfiction, many of its subjects revisited here in her latest collection of short stories, "A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You" (Random House, 185 pages, $22.95). Bloom writes in what has come to be known as the New Yorker style and turn of phrase; these are immediate, vivid tales for right now, this era, no other, such as the startling title story in which a well-organized career woman shops for just the right thing for her beloved child: gender reassignment surgery to make the adjustment somehow mislaid in an accident of DNA.

Bloom's stories and characters brush the off-putting at times as they broach subjects and emotions of raw intensity. Yet these remain thought-provoking, finely rendered tales of modern life with all its attendant emotions and fragilities.

Fragility - of identity and life itself - is at the core of Leah Stewart's "Body of a Girl" (Viking, 320 pages, $23.95). Olivia Dale does crime reporting during the steamy Memphis summer in which a series of murders rock the city. She's first on the scene of Alison Avery's vicious murder and feels disturbingly connected to the dead young woman (the corpse wears a T-shirt Olivia also owns; they're the same age; they could be each other). That connection leads her to investigate her story (Avery's girl-next-door image was merely that) a little too thoroughly - with devastating results. Sex, drugs and rock and roll haven't gone out of style, as Dale discovers.

Stewart's debut novel has taut pacing and even tighter prose. The realistic (though not gratuitous) violence may disturb some readers, but the story grips hard till the end.

For escape, J. Patrick Law's debut espionage thriller "The Assistant" (Simon & Schuster, 460 pages, $25) can't be topped. In the mode of Clancy and Ludlum, Law takes readers into the Israeli Mossad, the peerless intelligence agency, via Washington, Paris and the ever-volatile Middle East. Using recent cases like the Pollard conviction as prototypes, he places the Mossad in America, recruiting American Jews, exploiting their devotion to Israel. Espionage of all sorts and its inherent dangers (and excitement) make this a can't-put-down thriller from start to finish. Law knows his subjects well and elucidates them with verve and style.

Victoria A. Brownworth, who writes for many national publications, is the author of seven books and editor of seven. The most recent is "Night Shade: Gothic Tales by Women" (Seal Press), co-edited with Judith M. Redding.

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