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Youth, intrigue, identity, bon-bons

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A February harvest of novels, some with tender young stalks and others with the toughened bark of experience:

Get ready for darkness and delights, starting with David Mitchell's Number9Dream (Random House, 400 pages, $24.95), which was short-listed for the Booker Prize (or, as it's usually said, "Britain's prestigious Booker Prize"). And what a rich and lively experience it is.

Set in Japan, where Mitchell (Ghostwritten) teaches, it centers on young man, Eiji Miyaki, who travels to Tokyo from his rural roots to seek out his father. His parents wouldn't win any prizes for thoughtfulness; dad kept mom as a mistress, and mom, an alcoholic, abandoned Eiji and his sister.

Eiji is resilient and imaginative; we stumble upon him in what turns out to be a flabbergasting fantasy, a dream of a first chapter. Clues to its nature include references to John Lennon's "Imagine" and a matchbook from a bar called Mitty's, as in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Eiji's fantasies aren't as frequent as Walter's, but from then on, reality always seems a bit questionable. He becomes entangled with mobsters, a number of comical jobs and a sweet young musician as he pursues his quest and comes to deal with a tragedy of his youth.

Number9Dream is almost entirely satisfying, a brilliant, fresh coming-of-age novel and a safari into modern Japanese culture, seasoned on occasion with the spice of genre fiction.

Speaking of which, can Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair (Viking, 374 pages, $23.95) really be called genre fiction? Just because it's brilliant doesn't mean it's not. Part fantasy, part science fiction, part mystery, this first novel centers on Thursday Next, a Special Operations officer in an alternate London where similar - and mysterious - police squads handle such crimes as time-travel transgressions and werewolf attacks.

Next's specialty is literary crime, and her nemesis is one Acheron Hades, who's making off with original manuscripts of fiction for devious purposes. Next is a veteran of the ongoing Crimean War, which has prompted the enshrinement of a shady, arms-producing corporation at all levels of government, and while she's trying to track the theft of Martin Chuzzlewit and Jane Eyre, she's also enmeshed in the company's intrigue thanks to a character named Jack Schitt.

Funny name, eh? It's one of many. The literary wordplay is half the fun. The other half is the fantastical goings-on in this world, where reconstructed dodos are common pets, Thursday's father is a rogue time-travel operative, and her Uncle Mycroft is a wacky inventor who makes James Bond's Q look like a piker. His bookworm device allows the villain to murder literary characters and erase them from existence.

The dialogue is often absurdly funny, as in Mycroft's description of his assistant's demise: "A bit tragic, Thursday. We were developing a machine that used egg white, heat and sugar to synthesize methanol when a power surge caused an implosion. Owens was meringued."

There are moments of seriousness, too, as Thursday deals with her war experiences. That Fforde can deliver the goods with a straight face makes this novel all the more enjoyable. It's that rare thing, a must-read, and I expect we'll be seeing a lot more of Thursday.

Another accomplished, though more traditional, first novel is Burning Marguerite (Knopf, 236 pages, $23), by Elizabeth Inness-Brown. It takes place in one day but delves into decades of memory after Marguerite's adopted son, James, finds her dead body askew in the snowy New England woods.

Though written in visual, spare prose, there's nothing simple about this story. Marguerite's chapters move backward in time as we discover the violence and love that shaped her life, from New England to New Orleans. As these layers are revealed, the alternating chapters probe James' gratitude and love for Marguerite as he struggles to realize his own identity.

Filled with haunting places and beautifully drawn characters, Burning Marguerite is a sterling novel.

Another book in tune with the hearts of women, though more contemporary, is Scottish writer Janice Galloway's collection of short stories, Where You Find It (Simon and Schuster, 237 pages, $23). They range from comical to creepy, but even the funny ones leave a bittersweet taste on the tongue.

The stories touch upon romantic longing, pregnancy tests, jealousy, doubt, child abuse and, in one case, the surreal results of a tenacious rainy season ("After the Rains"). "Hope" is, aberrantly, from a man's point of view, describing his lovely counterpart as she reads her magazine and eats bon-bons - it's a brochure for a marriage of mind-numbing hell. "Not Flu" is a chilling implication of disease worse than death, while "Valentine" describes a couple's mundane Valentine's Day rituals with sly humor. Good stuff.

Japanese writer Natsuki Ikezawa looks at justice and self-realization in A Burden of Flowers (Kodansha International, 242 pages, $22), translated by Alfred Birnbaum. This modern tale centers on a Japanese artist whose heroin addiction pulls him into a police trap in Bali that might lead to the death penalty, and the spirited younger sister who tries to get him out of jail.

One might think that death, drug addiction and Eastern philosophy would make for a boggy book, but its breeziness belies the subject matter. It's an interesting and oddly light novel.

Last on the list is The Shadow Boxer (Houghton Mifflin, 400 pages, $14) by Canadian writer Steven Heighton. Though Heighton has published books of stories, essays and poems, this

is his first novel, and it sometimes shows as it engages in a tug-of-war with itself, moving from the rough edges of Lake Superior to contemporary Toronto to Egypt.

The protagonist is an earnest, self-absorbed writer, a poet, a sometime boxer, a romantic scarred by an alcoholic father. Sometimes the book is brilliant, as in a scene that recounts a brutal fight. Too frequently over its 400 pages, it's tiresome. You'll need the boxing gloves for this one.

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

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