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New novels to soothe your inner reader

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The Probable Future
By Alice Hoffman
(Doubleday: New York) $24.95/hardcover

Many of us who haunt bookstore aisles searching for something to tide us over can often be found scanning the H's, looking for something new by Alice Hoffman.

Hoffman is prolific, generally offering a new book annually. Her incantatory prose, honed over the course of almost 20 novels, has lured this reader into far too many overnight reading sessions.

The Probable Future won't disappoint longtime fans and will likely introduce a host of new readers into this New England wordsmith's fold.

Hoffman's brave enough to broach the subjects of witchcraft and magic and to set her stories in quaint New England villages, risking heresy and clich at once. It's a tribute to her literary caliber that she draws her New England home in bold enough strokes to invite full reader participation in the setting. One can feel the cold wet winds of March and grow restless under the heavy gray skies.

Here, the setting is Unity, Mass., a village near Boston where, since the 17th century, the Sparrow women have drawn legends around them. The current Sparrows, still living in Cake House, an added-on house that resembles a wedding cake, are grandmother Elinor, daughter Jenny and granddaughter Stella. Blessed (or cursed) with a gift on their 13th birthdays, the Sparrow girls descend from Rebecca Sparrow who, at 13, discovered she could not feel pain:

"Ever since, the gifts had varied with every generation. Just as Jenny's mother could discern a falsehood, her grandmother, Amelia, could ease the pain of childbirth with the touch of her hand. Jenny's great-grandmother, Elisabeth, was said to possess the ability to turn anything into a meal: rocks and stones, potatoes and ashes, all became soup in Elisabeth's competent hands. Elisabeth's mother, Coral, was known to predict the weather. Hannah, Coral's mother, could find anything that had been lost, whether it was a misplaced ring, a wandering fiance or an overdue library book. Sophie Sparrow was said to have walked through fire, and her mother, Rosemary, could outrun any man in the Commonwealth. Rebecca Sparrow's own daughter, Sarah, needed no sleep except for the tiniest of catnaps; a few moments' peace was said to provide her with the energy of ten strong men and the heart of the fiercest March lion."

Jenny Sparrow, a modern woman disenchanted with her family's mythical past, has the ability to dream other people's dreams. Relocated to Boston with her hapless husband Will Avery, "surely one of the most irresponsible men in New England," Jenny is watchful and wary when her daughter Stella hits 13. Stella resents her mother's hovering oversight, but understands Jenny's anxiety when she receives her gift -- the ability to see how people will die.

When Stella tells her father he must do something to prevent a woman's pre-ordained death, and he drunkenly complies, the family comes under scrutiny by the Boston police and press. Stella and Jenny flee to Unity for cover, and the book's full charm flows from this point.

Jenny tries to understand her mother's distant ways and gets a second chance at love. Stella blossoms in her ancestral home and dramas emerge that test the limits of each woman's particular gift.

Atmospheric and ultimately lighthearted, The Probable Future is a fable about the strengths of women and the need to connect -- with ourselves, with others, with our pasts.

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Orchard
By Larry Watson
(Random House: New York) $24.95/hardcover

Larry Watson's slim, spare novels of the West and Midwest are perfect examples of the "less is more" tenet of fiction writing. His last book, Montana, 1948, won the Milkweed Fiction Prize and achieved best-seller status. With Orchard, Watson is sure to enhance his reputation further as a graceful, economical novelist.

Set in Door County, Wis., a rural peninsula surrounded by Lake Michigan, Orchard is the tale of a cantankerous painter and the local woman who becomes his muse.

Ned Weaver's neighbors know little about his fame as an artist, but they are aware of his propensity for bedding his models. Weaver's wife Harriet has come to the conclusion that his art is all that matters and that the mistresses are merely an inconvenient, hurtful fact of their life together.

Sonja Skordahl, a Norwegian immigrant married to Henry House, a local orchard keeper, becomes Ned's model after the sudden death of her young son. In Sonja, Weaver finds his greatest model:

"Weaver had never known a model with this woman's talent for stillness. And talent was the word for it. For that she did not have to be taught or trained. She did not have to be reminded or cajoled. When told to pose in a particular position, she assumed it immediately and held it without protest. Without protest? Beyond that, she took to motionlessness eagerly, as if stasis were her natural state and she had been waiting for a reason to return to it."

When Henry discovers that his wife is modeling for Ned, his jealousy, combined with rotting grief, leads to a standoff. The crux: Both men want to possess Sonja, a woman completely self-possessed and emotionally unavailable to either of them.

Andrew Wyeth's Helga series of paintings might have been the inspiration for Orchard -- Weaver's paintings of Sonja become his best-known and most beloved legacy. But Watson is not attempting a biographical facsimile. Weaver is his vehicle for exploring the nature of the artistic process and the artist's drive. Sonja is everything flesh and blood that inspires but lives distinctly outside that precious realm.

Orchard is earthy and erotic, soft-spoken and starkly beautiful. It is Watson's finest achievement to date.

-- kathryn@csindy.com

capsule Larry Watson will sign and read from Orchard

Monday, Sept. 8 at the Boulder Bookstore, 1107 Pearl St., Boulder

Tuesday, Sept. 9 at the Tattered Cover Bookstore, Cherry Creek, 2955 E. First Ave., Denver

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