A chilling - and chilly - tale of danger in the Antarctic

New Fiction

December 18, 2005|By VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH | VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Cold Skin

Albert Sanchez Pinol (translated from Catalan)

Farrar, Straus & Giroux / 180 pages

An unnamed narrator journeys to a remote Antarctic island to run the weather post. On his first night there, he is attacked by strange humanoid creatures from the sea. He convinces the lighthouse keeper, Gruner, that their mutual chances of survival are greater if they join together: The narrator has a stash of ammunition, and the lighthouse is almost impenetrable.

Nothing in this eerie place is ever quite what it seems: Gruner keeps one of the creatures as pet/housemaid/lover, and when the narrator dives to a sunken ship off the island, he encounters young creatures, playful and gentle, unlike their older brethren. What changes them? What changed Gruner? Will the narrator be changed? Told in lean, spare prose, Pinol's chilling debut novel exposes the brutality dormant within each of us and what it takes to unleash our most vile demons.

Against Gravity

Farnoosh Moshiri

Viking Penguin / 320 pages

This beautifully written and artfully crafted novel by Iranian-born Moshiri examines the perilous nature of loss and displacement in the global village and demonstrates how catastrophic world events damage individuals irreparably. Three marginal people meet and converge in Houston in the 1980s just long enough to inadvertently injure each other. Madison Kirby is a snarky philosophy professor dying of AIDS; Ric Cardinal is a saintly social worker with secrets; Roya is an Iranian refugee with a young daughter, Tala. Ric tries to help Madison, who only wants Roya, who gets involved with Ric, enraging Madison. Roya's tale of her torturous life in and subsequent escape from Iran is vivid, harrowing and the most profoundly resonant tale in the novel.

The Conjurer's Bird

Martin Davies

Crown/ 320 pages

BBC TV producer Davies, author of mysteries starring Sherlock Holmes' housekeeper, knows how to spin a good yarn, and The Conjurer's Bird is a compelling one. During an expedition in 1774, Captain Cook discovers the world's "rarest bird ever recorded," a small thrush-like creature. He gives the specimen to his eminent naturalist, Sir Joseph Banks, who may or may not have given it to his elusive mistress, a botanical painter. Now, in the present, adventurers (including a man detailing a Gene Ark, a DNA study of all the animals on the planet) track down John "Fitz" Fitzgerald, a renowned conservationist, because, like the characters in The Maltese Falcon, they each want the bird, which has disappeared.

This fascinating, multi-faceted mystery moves deftly between centuries, each described as compellingly as the other, as are the many botanical details. The passionate romance between Banks and his mistress lies at the heart of the story, and the search for her identity becomes central to Fitz's search for the bird. Part treasure hunt, part scientific mystery, this is an immensely readable tale.

Liberation

Joanna Scott

Little, Brown / 272 pages

On a train to New York the day after her 70th birthday, Adriana Rundel is revisiting her comfortable suburban life when she is stricken by a pulmonary embolism. Gasping for breath, fearing death, she thinks back on her childhood as a Jew in hiding during World War II on the Italian island of Elba, the site of Napoleon's exile. It is a terrifying time; French colonial troops invade the island as the Allied invasion advances to "liberate" those on the tiny outpost. Adriana is only 10. She urges her family to offer refuge to a young AWOL Senegalese soldier, the 17-year-old Amdu, with whom she becomes infatuated. Adriana soon discovers that liberation does not necessarily mean freedom. Although not Scott's best effort, is a powerful and lush, if uneven, novel of memory and loss.

Song of the Cuckoo Bird

Amulya Malladi

Random House / 400 pages

Thirteen-year-old orphan girl Kokila is taken by her guardian to an ashram, where she will live until puberty, at which time, after an arranged marriage, she will live with her husband. The ashram is run by spiritual guru Charvi and her father, writer Ramanandam. Kokila, Chetana, a prostitute's daughter, and Vidura, Charvi's younger brother, all grow up together there. Then Kokila chooses to stay at the ashram rather than go to her husband, Vidura runs away and Chetana marries Ravi, Ramanandam's oldest grandson.

What was meant to be a spiritual oasis soon becomes a viper's nest of petty desires. Kokila becomes unhappy in the ashram and decides to seek employment in the nearby town. Soon she finds herself struggling against society's definitions of her as an unmarried, family-less woman. A very good story, if a tad prosaic and a bit long-winded.

Victoria A. Brownworth, a syndicated columnist, author and editor of more than 20 books, teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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