Summertime, and the reading is easy

Books of the Region

July 18, 2004|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

To many and many a reader of books, summer means porch, beach and standstill-traffic time. It is the season of softbacks and cover art that features a bare-to-the-waist hero and a ravishment-inviting heroine -- "Wait! He caught her wrist, and lightning tingled across her skin." You may worry along the way in the following half-dozen novels, but all does come out right in the end. It's romance fiction time.

The quotation above is from A Kiss of Fate (Ballantine, 343 pages, $23.95), by Mary Jo Putney of Riderwood. We are in London, then in Scotland; it's the 1740s, and one more Stuart pretender has called for a rising of the clans to throw off English hegemony. Gwyneth Owens, her wrist reclaimed, is young, bright, gorgeous, newly widowed and very English.

The obstacle is the impossibly handsome Duncan Macrae, aka Lord Ballister, and still again known as the laird of Dunrath Castle. Macrae recognizes this latest Stuart for the fomenter of a selfish, doomed cause; yet as that call proceeds, from glen to glen, he quivers too. Anyway, hero has married heroine -- and now they have moved north.

It matters that the main characters have a thing going. They're Guardians, "humans with mystical abilities" to conjure up the faces of others and to "control nature's forces." You ever stop to wonder where that storm came from, the one that wrecked the Spanish Armada? By now, Putney has more than two dozen novels to her credit (she rates hardback). She is at pains to present authentic settings, politics and characterizations. And what a touch that the fair Gwyneth, along with her other virtues, is a reader of books.

They were teenage sweethearts, but she ran away with a handsome, second-rate actor; he responded by going for the local judge's shallow daughter and likewise moving away. By now (the indeterminate present), each has a divorce and a disruptive teenage daughter; she with her graduate degree in environmentalism and he as inheritor of the local crabbing firm each is unaware of the other's story; and each has moved back to the village where they began.

All this at Marshyhope (a creek on Dorchester County maps), in Chesapeake Tide, by Jeanette Baker (Mira, 411 pages, $6.50). Quickly, this story of relationships involves three generations, two races, more than one social class and lots of outdoors. Specifically, the crabs (and watermen's livelihoods) are menaced by an unknown agent -- farm-chemical runoff? toxic industrial wastes? an unidentified virus? One quibble: Baker, from California, calls her people Southerners.

Women go by double first names. Mosquitoes get a mention, but not sea nettles. Isn't the real Dorchester home to Shoremen and Shorefolk? But Chesapeake Tide has the solid merit of being a story for grown-ups. The easy answers come mostly from the mouths of the half-grown; the final answers are mostly fingers-crossed.

Then there's Western Maryland, with a place that suggests Hagerstown or Waynesboro but to Patricia Gaffney, for her novel The Goodbye Summer (HarperCollins, 389 page, $24.95), is Michaelstown. It has a Calvert Street, an Antietam Avenue. And a woman, Caddie Winger, whose grandmother surprisingly wants to leave Caddie's house and go into a nursing home.

Caddie, 32, is 5 feet 11, unsmashing and unmarried, and her income is as a pianist, violinist and music teacher. She objects, but Nana moves out; soon Caddie is a daily visitor to Wake House and its dozen residents. Back home, Finnegan, her uncompliant dog, is lonely.

Next thing, Caddie has met a superspecial man, an expert on companion animals. Next thing, she is writing down the life stories of Wake's old folks. Next thing, her relationship is down the drain, and she wants to know more about her own father and mother, who never married. Nothing dull in a Gaffney setting, and somehow nothing improbable -- such as the hilarity when Caddie brings three of her new friends home for a pot party, or the pain behind the booze stash of a younger man damaged in a skydiving accident.

It's not that Caddie will survive, it's that you want her to.

What keeps Kathleen Eschenburg's Civil War novel, Seen by Moonlight (Avon, 403 pages, $5.99), from being one more Gone With the Wind knockoff? A: It's in Virginia. B: Its hero is in uniform (he gets to be a general). C: He's Royce, she's Annie, and by some intricacy they're already married.

Eschenburg, a Berlin Shorewoman, re-creates a Confederacy showing the occasional flaw -- the "600 years of arrogance" bred into its gentility, the self-deceit about house slaves (they're "the servants.") This book's picture of passion below the Potomac is widespread, not just individual.

As every generation has to learn anew, wars can go on and on and on.

Seen by Moonlight is an extended read (though Eschenburg excels at keeping her story in motion). Fortunately, the Civil War did and does end.

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