FICTION IN BRIEF

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Winter Birds by Jim Grimsley, Black Swan pounds 6.99.

Jim Grimsley's unusual prose is as childlike and simplistic as it is poetic, but serves perfectly the process of easing the reader into the harrowing yet dreamy world of this hitherto lauded playwright's first novel. Told by Danny, the second youngest of four brothers, but with the detachment and comprehension that age and retrospection have brought, the story follows their unhappy endurance of an abusive father. As he moves from job to job the family moves houses in a desperate but ever more familiar pattern of passivity and denial. Just as his mother refuses to confront her ghastly situation and put an end to the male tyranny that has scarred her mother's, her own and now her children's lives, Danny takes refuge in an eerie but blissfully painless dream world. The climactic and most powerful scenes of the novel take place in the horribly metaphorical "Circle House". What unfolds inside this literal vicious circle brings Danny to an uncomfortable but crucial self-awareness and gives this highly atmospheric novel a surprisingly uncompromising conclusion. Robert Peake

Lambs of God by Marele Day, Anchor pounds 9.99.

Marele Day, previously known for her Claudia Valentine crime novels, has headed for fresh pastures with this a modern-day fairytale about the conflict between the traditional and contemporary church. On an imaginary island live three nuns, sisters Iphigenia, Margarita and Carla, the last of a religious order whose timeless existence is punctuated only by food, sleep and worship - until the arrival of Father Ignatius, an ambitious priest with elaborate plans to convert their monastery into a retreat for the rich.

What ensues is a struggle between old and new where spiritual and commercial values are at stake. But the priest's invasion also has more personal repercussions, as his male presence forces each of the women to face her past or deal with emotions previously unknown. Iphigenia, ruled by her powerful sense of smell, hides a dark secret which is aroused by the male scent. Margaritas's agitated and resentful response to Ignatius provides the clue to her tragic childhood, while the naive Carla has her sexual curiosity awakened by the priest.

As the priest begins to understand the primitive devotions of his captors, so the nuns learn to overcome their suspicion of technology and money. But sex and religion make uneasy bedfellows and Marele Day's combination of the two gives her fairytale a disturbing edge. She is a self-conscious writer who draws extensively on the literary past, most obviously Shakespeare's three witches and Angela Carter's feminist fairytales. Hers is fundamentally a novel written by and for women, and the women who inhabit it remain central to our enjoyment. Ignatius acts as a catalyst rather than an individual that the reader can empathise with. Perhaps Winona Ryder, who is to star in the forthcoming film version, will hold more appeal for the male audience.

In Lambs of God Marele Day's crime-writing past is apparent as her characters continually shock and grip us. It is an original and enthralling, if at times unsettling work. Chloe Walker

The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle, Black Swan pounds 6.99.

For the uninitiated, Kotzwinkle launched his career at the end of the Seventies with the hilarious and unforgettable The Fan Man, and, apart from a string of similarly biting and highly readable satires since, is the man responsible for that epic of our times ET: The Extraterrestrial. Here he offers us a look through his perspicacious spectacles at the fickle and sycophantic world of American publishing. With his unusual and often deliciously bawdy humour we follow the path of Hal Jam, a bear, through the Los Angeles literary world. The bear comes across the manuscript of an unpublished novel while wandering through the forest (not that unlikely, actually - the original author is a rough-living lumberjack - but in Kotzwinkle's world anything could happen) and decides to brave humankind and take it to a publisher. Needless to say, the publisher loves it, and so begins the farcical round of wining and dining, chatshow appearances, and endless handshakes. Add to this the fawning appeasement by the bear's unwitting publishers of his extremely unusual behaviour, and you have an idea of the general hilarity that ensues. This is a wickedly unforgiving novel that, in typical Kotzwinkle fashion, amuses as much as it takes a serious look at the absurd way human beings behave. Robert Peake

Before Women Had Wings by Connie May Fowler, Black Swan pounds 6.99.

Now and again, a book grabs your elbow and moves ineradicably into your life: such a book is Connie May Fowler's third novel.

It isn't really a novel. There, on the flyleaf, Fowler writes of facing her own ghosts and of reopening old wounds; she thanks her brother and sister for sharing childhood memories: she whispers to her dead parents "I hope I got it right". This one is personal, clearly, and it matters in a way that the earlier two, sparklingly accomplished as they were, did not.

The story tells of eight-year-old Bird, the younger daughter of an affectionate but hopeless failure, a man who wanted to be a country singer but could never make it. Her mother, Glory Marie, has been thoroughly abused by every man she has ever been fond of and who knows no solution to her despair other than to inflict violence on her children. Bird's parents war continually; her sister broods unapproachably; her adored half-brother turns up now and again, trying ineffectually to help. There is money for a lot of hard liquor but for little else.

Yet Bird has two great gifts. One is the box her adored father made for her, in which she keeps a dried confederate rose, scattered and broken birds' eggs, tiny mummified lizards. The other is her soaring intelligence, which insists she should try, in the face of brutality and terror, to hunt out beauty in the degradation of her existence. In the end it is, extraordinarily, a success story, a lyrical, economic, superbly crafted and moving book. Sue Gaisford

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