Cabbage water, awakening, empire

It's rare to find a real gem among books, even in a cluster of seven. So when there's a diamond and a couple of sapphires in the group, the pain of gazing into the cubic zirconias is somewhat dulled.

Let's start with the diamond: A brilliant first novel by Douglas Galbraith, "The Rising Sun" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 529 pages, $25). This is historical fiction and universal fiction, a tale of Scottish identity, English injustice, adventure and disaster. Set at the end of the 17th century, the story is told by Roderick Mackenzie, an up-and-coming young man who joins a momentous expedition to the New World, a bold effort by the Scottish people to claim trade and wealth for themselves and escape the economic depression perpetuated by the neighboring English.


Galbraith is able to portray the most exhilarating sense of hope and the most naturalistic, horrifying despair. Our hero grows, too, from a bumpkin to a man of trade to a man of substance, as well as the sole chronicler of this tale of woe and innocence lost -- the innocence not only of a man, but of a country.

The details that drive the ample action are meticulous, palpable to the senses of the imagination. Character and language are blended with wry skill, as in this description of a disagreeable woman: "One is aware from the very start of being in the presence of a soul conjured from soured milk and cabbage water."


"The Rising Sun" is a great story, compellingly told.

Painted on a smaller canvas is "Miss Garnet's Angel" (Carroll & Graf, 342 pages, $25) by Salley Vickers. Already a London best-seller, this tale of spinster Miss Garnet's emotional awakening is in the great tradition -- some might say cliche -- of repressed female characters transformed by Italy. Yet the novel alights in the heart softly, with rustling wings, and a reader cannot help but be enchanted by Miss Garnet's beautifully decaying Venice.

After the death of a longtime friend, the retired English schoolmarm arrives in Venice a communist, rational, stern, but open to new experiences. The move precipitates small and unexpected friendships, and the bridges, canals, statues and storied churches fill her with images of angels, especially Raphael. His role in the story of Tobit -- from the biblical Apocrypha -- is retold, paralleling Miss Garnet's own awakening to simple joys, even amid suffering.

Vickers' protagonist is endearing and intelligent, vulnerable under her brittle shell. And the contemporary retelling of Raphael's role in saving a family from ruin adds dimensions of mystery and history, as Julia Garnet sorts out the legend. "Miss Garnet's Angel" is a good read, an intellectual escape with romantic accouterments.

Less gentle and more suspenseful is John Searles' "Boy Still Missing" (William Morrow, 292 pages, $25), a moving, gripping debut novel set in 1971 about a teen, his troubled mother, his alcoholic father and the tangle of fate that leads to tragedy and redemption.

Searles, senior book editor at Cosmopolitan, writes with the ease of pop fiction, but his style disguises the subtle interplay of emotion and motivation that seethes beneath the surface. The tale of young Dominick intensifies as his crush on his father's lover and his mother's shadowy past intersect with unforeseen consequences.

The book's statement about the bloody legacy of illegal abortion crosses the line into preachiness for the breadth of a page, but that's not enough to spoil this involving, sometimes haunting and completely satisfying novel.

Go back a few years more, to 1968, for "Confessions of Brother Eli" (MacAdam / Cage, 342 pages, $24). Joseph Di Prisco's novel is bitterly funny, the story of enormously fat, smart and self-destructive Brother Eli. Irreverent in more ways than one, he's an instructor at a Catholic private school with a menagerie of peculiar teachers and a student body roiling with humorous angst and subtle rebellion.


Eli feels his life spinning out of control with drink, food and his affection for an eccentric transfer student, but his essential morality allows him to be a perfect lens through which to see the faults of his Brothers, the church and the world. His emotional evolution is subtle, and not entirely conclusive, but this trip in his mind and body, behind some really bad breath, is often absurd, sometimes touching and always enjoyable.

Less pleasurable, though an admirable novel of astounding ambition, is Amitav Ghosh's "The Glass Palace" (Random House, 474 pages, $25.95). Epic in scale, this is historical fiction, inspired by the author's family history, but it reads more like fictionalized history and lacks a sense of passion.

The book concerns the complicated relationship between Burma and India, in and out of the clutches of English colonialism, with its baggage of class prejudice and racism. The novel transports a reader to these places, the way a good history does, but despite the heaping piles of tragedy, the heart only sometimes follows. Yet it's a fascinating story of empire and war from a rarely seen and vital point of view.

A novel purely for stylists is Julian Rios' "Monstruary" (Alfred A. Knopf, 225 pages, $25). Edith Grossman's translation is rife with wordplay and allusion. This short book attempts to portray the way an artist sees the world, connecting people, events and places in unlikely ways.

The chapters are more like short stories, focusing on characters connected with the art world, mostly men reliving grotesque love affairs and horrible deaths of women they have known. The canvas is colorful, but "Monstruary" is still episodic and tedious.

Play more mind games in the obviously titled "The Mind Game" (Ballantine, 360 pages, $24.95), Hector Macdonald's first novel. It would be intriguing if it weren't so preposterous.


An Oxford student, drafted for an emotion-recording experiment, never knows what's real from one moment to the next as a woman of mystery and his professor play him like an accordion. The twists won't "leave readers gasping," as the promotional material declares, but instead will have them rolling their eyes.

Macdonald has a facility with words, a bit of fun with game theory and a decent sense of place, most felt when his characters are in Kenya, but "The Mind Game" teeters on mindlessness.

Chris Kridler is a technology writer and columnist for Florida Today. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, Premiere, The Sun, the Maryland Poetry Review and other publications.