Novels of January: Epic, grit, wit, pup

January 11, 1998|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Publishers don't have much faith in January. They assume that you spent all your disposable income last month and, because Santa put 4.7 books under your tree, you already have enough to read. So they hold back major titles until early spring and use January for first novels, "sleepers," and a lot of bad books they should never have accepted anyway.

The first novelists are so thrilled to be published that they don't make a fuss about ending up in a "dead" month. The publishers comfort them with a line of reasoning that goes something like this: "Oh, January is a wonderful time for 'new voices' like yours. It's a quiet period when your novel has a chance of getting the attention it deserves." Translated, that means, "We don't really know if you're any good, so we're going to take a chance on you in a month when nothing else is happening."

Nancy Kricorian's "Zabelle" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 237 pages, $23) is one of four debut novels that deserve something better than a spot in the scorned month of the publishing trade. It's an epic tale told with admirable economy and grace. The eponymous heroine comes of age in the exotic, and terrifying, last days of Ottoman Turkey. She survives the Armenian genocide of 1915 and emerges from a period of near-starvation in the desert to find a new life in America. The full horror of the suffering endured by the Armenians is powerfully depicted; bu t so, too, is the almost magical resiliency and courage of Zabelle. She is the kind of character who instantly captures your heart, pulling you into a narrative that makes an old tragedy seem as fresh as this morning's news.

***

In "Another Day in Paradise" (Viking, 263 pages, $22.95), Eddie Little gives gritty realism a new dimension, creating a pair of drug-addicted, thieving anti-heroes who look and sound so convincing that you almost expect to see them riding in the cage of a passing police car.

Bobbie is just a kid learning to survive on the streets when he connects with the charmingly felonious Mel, an accomplished safe cracker, bogus-check writer, and all around criminal opportunist. In the upside-down world of crime, Mel is the mentor Bobbie always needed, but the effects of such guidance are dangerously destructive, making a better criminal at the cost of a better life. A former drug addict and convict, the much-tattooed Eddie Little knows a thing or two about the underworld he describes, and it shows on every page of this mesmerizing novel.

***

Amelie Nothomb is a Belgian author with six novels published in Europe, but "The Stranger Next Door"(Holt, 152 pages, $20), is her debut novel in the United States. Her dazzling tale of a retired couple's nightmarish relationship with a bizarre neighbor-a doctor named Palamedes - will keep you awake nights wondering about the nasty characters lurking in your own neighborhood. But not all is gloom in this elegantly written book. There is wit. The not-so-good doctor is described as looking like a "depressed buddha"; his oversized wife is wickedly called "the cyst."

***

Marianne Wesson's "Render Up the Body" (HarperCollins, 326 pages, $24), is an amazingly accomplished first novel about modern crime and punishment. There is a slick, formulaic touch to the story; but it also seems utterly convincing in its descriptions of a police investigation gone wrong and the subsequent battle for justice.

This should not be surprising, given the credentials of its author - a former federal prosecutor and law professor. But the wonder is that a highly trained attorney should write so well. As Wesson's heroine struggles to find the truth behind a suspicious death-row case, the story moves forward with the speed and conciseness so notably lacking in the legal world itself.

***

These four admirable exceptions to the general rule of January publishing should not lead anyone to underestimate the amount of dismal fiction dumped on the market. One title will serve to illustrate the common lot. Lynne Tillman's eighth work, "No Lease on Life" (Harcourt Brace, 179 pages, $21), appears with the confusing claim that her prose style is part Henry James, part Samuel Beckett, part Woody Allen. It might be more accurate to say that it is a Woody Allen parody of the way trendy novelists write.

***

Finally, an old pro of the mystery genre has come out with such an entertaining new book that her publishers must have decided it would sell even in January. Amanda Cross' "The Puzzled Heart" (Ballantine Books, 257 pages, $21), is a particular treat for anyone who knows the inner realms of the academic world, which are rich in both wry comedy and fiendish plots. Cross' professorial sleuth, Kate Fansler, is deservedly popular with readers, and her new case will not disappoint.

The twist this time is the strange kidnapping of Kate's husband. But perhaps of even greater interest to loyal fans is the introduction of a companion detective - a St. Bernard puppy named Bancroft, who looks set to become the canine equivalent of Holmes' Watson.

Michael Shelden is the author of three biographies and writes for the Daily Telegraph in London, the Times of London, the Washington Post and the New Yorker.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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