Nicholson Baker.Random House.165 pages. $15.It's a 1990s...

BOOK BRIEFS

March 08, 1992|By JEAN MARBELLA THE HEAT ISLANDS. Randy Wayne White. St. Martin's. 276 pages. $19.95.

Nicholson Baker.

Random House.

165 pages. $15.

It's a 1990s version of "Some Enchanted Evening." Instead of two strangers seeing each other across a crowded room, though, Jim and Abby find each other amid the babble of a 900 sex line.

This slim novel is entirely dialogue -- but what highly charged yet oddly romantic dialogue it is -- from one expensive (95 cents per half-minute) phone call. Jim and Abby volley back and forth, sometimes revealing realities, other times fantasies. Their verbal chemistry is as charming as it is unorthodox, and soon they're speaking their own secret sexual language -- of Frans and Delgados and, most of all, strumming.

Their night is both lovely and sad: lovely that Jim and Abby found intimacy in each other across a telephone line, yet sad in the alienation that remains the backdrop of their lives. And, Mr. Baker seems to believe, our own as well. Randy Wayne White just may have created the ideal escape literature for the politically correct 1990s -- an environmentally inspired mystery-thriller set in a scenic vacation spot that harbors mood-setting storms and conniving criminals.

"The Heat Islands" is the second in what looks to become a series of fishing-related mysteries by Mr. White, a journalist and fishing guide in Sanibel Island, Fla. His sleuth is a marine 'N biologist called Doc Ford. The case he stumbles upon here is the apparent murder of the owner of a Sanibel marina.

The thriller loses some of its thrill since the reader knows the solution early on. The only real mystery is whether Ford will figure it out before he and his cronies become victims -- an outcome that seems likely since the bad guy is a psychopathic killer (an overly simplistic choice on Mr. White's part). Nonetheless, Mr. White's descriptions are crisp and knowledgeable; he knows how to crank out a page-turning action scene, and in these recessionary times, a Doc Ford mystery is the most affordable Florida vacation anyone's come up with yet.

@

J. WYNN ROUSUCK

SHILOH.

Phyllis Naylor.

Atheneum.

144 pages. $14.95. Ages 8-12.

This book recently won the 1992 Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to children's literature. Awarded each year by the American Library Association, the Newbery is recognition of the talents and achievements of Ms. Naylor, who lives in Bethesda. Children have enjoyed so many of her books because she has never fallen in a rut, and she has never disappointed them with a dull story.

Grown-ups who care about children's reading are also pleased that Ms. Naylor has won this award, as they recognize the beauty of her writing and the value of the ideas that she develops in each book. Her characters are as diverse -- and as normal -- as her readers. They have problems in school, with peers and with adults, and sometimes they make their predicaments worse as they try to solve them.

The young West Virginian boy in "Shiloh" -- the name Marty chooses for the dog he finds near his home -- also faces a dilemma. He knows whose dog it is, but he also knows the dog has been half-starved and beaten by his owner, Judd. Morally and legally, Marty knows he must return the dog he has come to love, but he just can't do it.

The beauty of the countryside and the dignity of the people of Appalachia are brought to life by Ms. Naylor, and the solution Marty finds to a situation that becomes more and more complicated is startlingly simple. He faces his problems, supported by the values he has learned from his upbringing, and he is successful. Ms. Naylor is not preaching, but certainly it is clear that she believes that moral decisions spring from strong families.

JUDITH ROSENFELD

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