- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003

As Alice Hoffman describes them in her new and 16th novel The Probable Future (Doubleday, $24.95, 322

pages), females born into the Sparrow family are “as varied as the days of March,” though not so varied that they have nothing in common. And what they have in common is that each is endowed with special powers. Over the generations each Sparrow woman, beginning with Rebecca who was tried as a witch and then drowned in colonial Massachusetts, comes into her supernatural genetically-encoded inheritance at the hormonally wobbly pubescent age of 13.

From that point on, and whatever else it might be, no Sparrow woman’s life is ever dull. From predicting the weather, to finding lost objects, to walking through fire, the course of each life, for better or for worse, is determined by her special gift. Present day descendent Jenny Sparrow Avery’s particular gift is that she divines other people’s dreams, but it’s her 13-year-old daughter Stella’s new found ability to predict when people will die that poses the novel’s central problem.

When Stella senses that a brutal murder is about to occur, she asks her father Will Avery to intervene, only to have him end up as the prime and wrongly accused murder suspect, which only goes to show that all gifts are mixed blessings. Filled with the expected twists and turns that such a novel of feminine mystical powers is likely to contain, Miss Hoffman, who has looked before to the supernatural for inspiration, delivers a good summertime read.

With his health failing, acclaimed author Joshua Seigl hires Alma, a near-illiterate young woman covered with tattoos to assistant him in Joyce Carol Oates’ latest offering The Tattooed Girl (Ecco, $25.95, 307 pages). Seigl, whose great success rests on a novel based on his grandparents’ Holocaust experience, refuses to fire the girl, even when her anti-Semitism becomes problematic for Seigl’s family. Instead, he extends himself in kindness toward her.

Alma herself is a victim, bound as she is to a gang of abusive men and to her boyfriend who insists that she engage in a series of petty thefts to prove her love. As she learns more about Seigl’s horrific familial past she comes, as a credit to her humanity, to a renewed respect for not only her employer but for herself. All reaches the tipping point when simple human kindness transforms itself into the erotic. Miss Oates tackles a timely topic here, as she often has over the course of her distinguished career, the subject this time being ethnicity and how hate and, particularly, love play against it.

In Carol Goodman’s newest suspense novel The Seduction of Water (Ballantine Books, $23.95, 355 pages), Iris Greenfeder, a fortysomething, has so far racked up a life of only partial accomplishments. Her career is a patchwork of part-time teaching jobs, and her love life, at the 10-year mark with the same boyfriend, is at a standstill. Iris is in need of a little adventure and she gets it big time when an opportunity to discover the truth about her mother presents itself.

Just after World War II, Iris’ mother Kay hires herself out as a maid at a ritzy hotel in the Catskills. A year later she marries the hotel’s manager, sets up housekeeping in the hotel, and has Iris. All looks well, at least on the surface. Then she begins, during the off-season, a strange career as a writer of fantasy novels and when Iris is only nine, abandons her daughter.

The very night she leaves home, Kay ends up dying in a fire in another hotel, this one on Coney Island, registered as the wife of another man. Now, all these years later, Kay’s former literary agent is convinced that her client has left behind another manuscript for one final novel, and if Iris can find it, she’ll not only realize some possible and long overdue success for herself, but by going back to the old hotel where she grew up andfollowing the clues in her mother’s story, solve a decades-old murder mystery as well. Suspenseful and entertaining, Miss Goodman’s page-turner will appeal primarily to readers who prefer mysteries and romance.

As author Deborah Schupack explains of her first novel, a psychological thriller entitled The Boy on the Bus ( Free Press, $23, 215 pages) “A boy gets off the school bus at the end of the day and his mother doesn’t think he’s the right kid.” He more or less looks the same as the 8-year-old copper-haired Charlie who left that morning, but there’s something changed about him, something that Meg, Charlie’s mother, can’t quite put her finger on, as if over the course of a day her son has matured into a different and future self.

Confounded and panicked, Meg summons home to northern Vermont the boy’s father, away working in Toronto, and their teenaged daughter, away at boarding school, hoping that the combined force of family will solve the mystery. Neither, however, is prepared to accept that the boy now living in their house is not Charlie or that Meg’s judgments are anything but faulty. Shouldn’t a mother know her own child, after all? Compactly written, this tale of a family’s attempt to grasp and finally know its own identity is a smart, swift, stylish read.

Life is definitely a carnival in Lee Siegel’s strangely comic and inventive new novel Love and Other Games of Chance (Viking, $27.95, 406 pages) in which she tells the story of showman Isaac Schlossberg, who began acting in his father’s traveling sideshow carnival, then gravitated to the circus and on to vaudeville. On tour throughout the world, Isaac falls in with a troupe of snake charmers, plays the British music halls, and by way of the Soviet Union where he teams in an animal act, ends up in Paris until the Nazis force him back to the United States where he ends up in Hollywood in a B-movie produced by a gang of Jewish mobsters. But wait, folks, that’s not all.

Isaac’s wild adventures include more than a touch of romance. Among his paramours is a tightrope walker, an acrobat, a snake charmer, and an aviatrix. Charlatans, thrill-seekers, the great and imaginary combine to round out the fantastic cast and include everyone from Adolf Hitler and Charles Lindbergh to Bugsy Siegel and the Abominable Snowman.

Mr. Siegel, a professor of Indian religions at the University of Hawaii, has traveled widely in that country and has published several well-regarded books on Indian culture and mysticism, but the credential that may be most revealing and possibly the driving force behind this tale of wonder-working and trickery is that the author was also once a member of the magicians’ union.

R.C. Scott is a writer in Alexandria, Va.

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