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Irish woes, the rails, class, a hamlet


The Story of Lucy Gault (Viking, 288 pages, $24.95) recounts the subtleties of one woman's life with the graceful nuance only renowned Irish writer William Trevor can wield. Those familiar with Trevor's often heartbreaking short stories, which appear regularly in The New Yorker, will revel in this tale, which begins in the war-torn Ireland of the 1920s.

Lucy Gault is the 9-year-old daughter of an Irish colonel in the British army and his English wife. When their lush country home, Lahardane, is torched by anti-English arsonists, Lucy's parents decide to leave. The day before their scheduled departure, Lucy runs away, hoping to force her parents to remain in the land she loves so much. Believing Lucy has drowned in the nearby ocean, her parents depart as planned, bereft and guilt-ridden, exiling themselves, never learning that their daughter is alive.

Trevor takes Lucy from childhood to old age -- and with her the troubles of Ireland. Plumbing the rich depths of personal and political conflicts, Lucy's story has the resonance of Yeats' poems, the lyric sadness of Irish legend. Exquisitely wrought and finely tempered, The Story of Lucy Gault speaks profoundly of loss and reclamation; it is yet another small gem of genius from the Chekovian pen of Trevor.

In John Ridley's chilling new novel, The Drift (Knopf, 288 pages, $24), African-American corporate lawyer Charles Harmon enjoys his affluent, upper-middle-class lifestyle, replete with BMW and trophy wife. He can't envision fatherhood, however; his wife's pregnancy torments him with nightmares of a deformed baby. He takes speed to keep from dreaming; a spiraling addiction loses him wife and job and then leads him to a vastly different life.

Harmon takes to the rails, as a hobo called Brain Nigger Charlie. As BNC, Harmon drifts from city to city, keeping his nightmares at bay with drugs, his intellect sharp visiting libraries. Charged with a mission by his hobo mentor, Chocolate Walt, to find the latter's 17-year-old niece Corina who has begun riding the roughest stretch of rail, BNC reclaims his sense of purpose and comes close to uniting BNC with the man Charlie Harmon once was.

Ridley's prose deftly mixes intellectual argot and street slang as he chronicle's BNC's search. The Drift details a life run amok with gritty poignancy; freight trains and homeless people will ever require a second look. Ridley's startling novel reads like a hard slap up-side the head, knocking society's assumptions about race, class and intellect flat.

The brutally acid intellectual wit of Robert Chalmers' debut novel, Who's Who in Hell (Grove, 360 pages, $13) will have fans ringing their friends at 3 a.m. to read the choicest bits -- if they can stifle the guffaws. As an obituary writer for a London newspaper, Daniel Linnell plots a book -- Who's Who in Hell -- a wry compendium of obits of the most heinous criminals in history. In addition to the darkly hilarious obits, Who's Who in Hell provides a razor-sharp study of class in both Britain and the U.S. Full of quixotic moments and odd-lot characters, Chalmers' novel is a rollickingly good read.

Invoking the charms of France she handled so deftly in Chocolat, Joanne Harris returns to the dailiness of small-town life in Coastliners (William Morrow, 368 pages, $24.95), set in the village of Les Salants, on a tiny island, Le Devin, literally between a rock and a hard place. There Madelaine Presteau finds herself back home after a decade in Paris, struggling to reunite with her taciturn father and coalesce other elements of her former life. Presteau must find herself and in so doing helps propel the hamlet from whence she came into its own prosperity. Harris has a flair for elegantly delectable prose and emotionally damaged characters whose quests mirror our own. A compelling successor to Chocolat.

Shot (Henry Holt, 256 pages, $24), the third of Jenny Siler's riveting suspense novels, showcases her strong female characters and superbly paced plotting. Lucy Greene's husband, Carl, works for a biotech firm. When he dies in an apparent car accident, all is not as it seems. Darcy Williams, an ex-con attempting to keep her imprisoned sister safe, is looking for what Carl was about to reveal to Kevin Burns, a disgraced journalist contacted by Carl just before his death. Lucy wants answers for her husband's murder which also involve her son's death, brother's illness and a suspicious outbreak of TB. The pieces come together fast and furious in this sharply written and timely novel evocative of the best of the "noir" genre.

In a not-so-distant future, the world is united under the new EarthGov in sci-fi writer Kelley Eskridge's novel Solitaire (Eos / HarperCollins, 384 pages, $24.95). The privileged Hopes are raised to be the leaders of this brave new world.

Among them is Jackal Segura, the Hope of Ko, a colossal conglomerate. When a terrible accident occurs, killing her entire "web," Segura finds herself positioned as scapegoat -- and mass murderer. Sentenced to virtual reality prison and solitary confinement -- locked in both a cell and her own mind -- Segura must struggle to survive and eventually escape. Once a Hope, Segura is now an outcast, a solo, who must come to terms with past and present.

Eskridge's chilling vision of the future, with personal identity chips and a terrifying government information system, resonates with an all-too-probable Orwellian scariness and disturbing amorality. Vivid and provocative.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of numerous books. Her weekly column on TV and politics, "The Lavender Tube," appears in newspapers throughout the United States. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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