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Masterful literary confections to savour

Mary and O'Neil
Justin Cronin
Dell Publishing: New York Paperback: $11.95

The discovery of a genuine new literary voice is cause to celebrate. So pull out the party hats, Justin Cronin has arrived. His debut effort, Mary and O'Neil, a novel in stories, is rich in language, characterization, imagination and emotional truth, creating a place and people so real you feel you could walk among them.

Mary Olson and O'Neil Burke are regular folks who find each other while in their 30s when they are both teachers in the same school. Before they meet, each passes through a series of struggles chronicled in the book's early stories -- death in the family, loss of a child, illness -- all the stuff of normal life made extraordinarily beautiful and poignant in this writer's hands.

Cronin writes with wit and understanding about the loves of our lives -- between parents and children, between siblings, between husband and wife, and between lovers -- lulling us into listening with his lovely, steady prose.

Three words: Read this book.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Dialogues of the Dead
Reginald Hill
Delacorte Press: New York Hardcover: $23.05

To relieve the tension, this recently enamored Reginald Hill fan would shakily put the book aside and check out her hall closet and tiny writing retreat to see if there was a knife-wielding intruder lurking about in the dark. Dialogues of the Dead is guaranteed to elicit the same response in you, dear mystery reader.

In mid-Yorkshire, the local newspaper and Mid-Yorkshire County library are sponsoring a short-story contest. A puzzling piece called "First Dialogue" has been submitted. Head librarian, Dick Dee, and his assistant, the attractive Rye Pomona, are drawn to the fascinating story -- especially since it eerily mirrors the death of a motorist who has plunged off a bridge that preceding day. The library committee decides it's just a coincidence. But a few days later the "Second Dialogue" arrives. It also mirrors a fatal motorcycle accident that had occurred the previous evening.

Yorkshire's own master sleuths, Pascoe and Dalziel, are immediately called in. The refined, polite Inspector Peter Pascoe and outrageously flamboyant Superintendent Andy Dalziel (aka the Fat Man), one of the greatest teams in crime fiction (yes, you've seen them on TV) are assisted in their investigation by Detective Hat Bowler, who wants to prove his investigatory abilities to the superintendent, the inspector and also to the lovely librarian. The clues seem to reside in the dialogues, well-crafted pieces filled with word puzzles, allusions to Greek classics, references to the Psalms and a multitude of other literary sources.

Reginald Hill, the grand master of British psychological thrillers has written his finest to date. This is not the rather tame, well-crafted plotting of British mystery writers such as the "Dames," Agatha Christie or PD James. With Hill's suspenseful turns in plot and well-developed characterization of the local eccentrics -- all suspects -- we come to the final and shocking revelation of the identity of the "Wordman."

The mystery genre, in the hands of certain authors has in the past few years reached the status of being considered "literary," and Dialogues of the Dead certainly belongs in that category.

-- Betty Howard

Why Did I Ever
Mary Robison
Counterpoint: Washington, D.C. Hardcover: $23

Why Did I Ever is the dark, hilarious diary of Money Breton, a manic, pill-popping script doctor living in a small southern town, barely hanging on to her last Hollywood job. She's been married three times, her two grown-up kids are in deep trouble and the IRS is banging on her door. She talks to herself constantly and passes time with Hollis, her affable best friend and fellow TV addict. Money cheers herself up by lovingly inscribing books by famous authors to herself, by painting everything in her house gold and by going on marathon drives to unknown destinations.

Author Mary Robison, a master of voice, plays with structure here, penning Why Did I Ever in 536 short entries which eventually come together to form an intricately plotted story -- reading it is sort of like watching a jigsaw puzzle come together.

Why Did I Ever is Mary Robison's first book in 10 years, a welcome treat, the return of a great voice.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

The Secret Life of Bees
Sue Monk Kidd
Viking: New York Hardcover: $24.95

One could be cynical and imagine that this novel was written with Oprah's Book Club in mind. All the ingredients are here: a spunky, female protagonist with an abusive father; a pack of strong, black women; a locale seeped in racist overtones. But The Secret Life of Bees is the real thing. If it ends up on Oprah, it's only because it's one of the best, most readable coming-of-age tales to come down the pike in years.

Fourteen-year-old Lily Owens is our heroine, a lonely South Carolina girl who runs away from home with Rosaleen, her family's black housekeeper, when Rosaleen butts heads with the town's sheriff and his cronies. They travel to the town of Tiburon where they're taken in by August, a beekeeper with a honey business and an inherited home that houses her two sisters, a carving of a black Madonna and untold memories.

Lily's secrets soften as she merges into this household, understanding for the first time what it feels like to be important, to be useful, to be protected. A rich tale packed with colorful characters and a palpable sense of place.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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