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Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page BW11


Graceland, by Chris Abani (Picador, $14). This novel takes place in Lagos, Nigeria, where novelist Abani was born. (He lives now in L.A.) Sixteen-year-old Elvis (yes, as in Presley) hopes to make it out of Maroko, the Lagos ghetto -- a "swamp city," he calls it -- where he's lived since his father fell on hard times. Is doing impersonations of the King of Rock-and-Roll his ticket out? Is there any ticket out of the postcolonial hell Elvis inhabits, where people are driven to sell anything they have and where abuse, corruption and torture are as common as Coca-Cola?

An Almost Perfect Moment, by Binnie Kirshenbaum (Ecco, $13.95). A coming-of-age story and a tale of mothers, daughters and how they can drive each other crazy, An Almost Perfect Moment describes the adolescent trajectory of Valentine Kessler, who's growing up Jewish in a part of Brooklyn that's "the last stop on the LL train." The time? "On the cusp of the great age of disco, when this part of Brooklyn would come into its own, as if during the years before it had been aestivating like a mudfish, lying in wait for the blast, the glitter, the platform shoes, Gloria Gaynor, for doing the hustle." At the beginning of the story, Valentine is "fifteen and three-quarter years old, which is to be neither here nor yet there as far as life is concerned." Of course she's born to be a trial to her mother, Miriam. Good thing Miriam has her regular mah-jongg dates with The Girls, her three counselors and commiserators.

Breaking the Tongue, by Vyvyane Loh (Norton, $14.95). As in Graceland, torture features prominently in this novel, although it takes place 50 years earlier and a world away, in Singapore during World War II as it's captured by the Japanese. Claude Lim is young and ethnic Chinese but raised to worship all things British; his country's new occupiers have brutal ways of making him rethink who he is and whom or what he owes allegiance to. Loh intersperses flashbacks to Claude's prewar life with the horrors of the interrogation chamber and wartime scenes of chaos and despair: "It's strange to feel at nineteen that time is running out, and there's nothing he can do about it. The buildings keep toppling, the city burns on, the roads eviscerate across town, bringing up earth and long-buried debris. The signs of defeat are clear but nobody seems to be trying to do anything about it. Among the civilian population, a deep resignation has set in. People move about like drugged animals being led to the abattoir, a drowsy, numbed sweetness in their eyes. This, more than the bombs and the endless sirens, is what frightens him."

Bandbox, by Thomas Mallon (Harcourt, $13). The author of Henry and Clara delivers the tale of a Jazz Age fight to the death -- between two high-end men's magazines, Bandbox and Cutaway, and their down-and-dirty editors, Jehoshaphat Harris and Jimmy Gordon, Harris's erstwhile protégé. "I think of you as a bastard son," Harris once told Gordon. Now they're archrivals in an ad-and-circulation war that's going to involve kidnappers, Hollywood celebs and a dangerous amount of hard liquor, as you can tell from the book's opening line: "Cuddles Houlihan got clipped by the vodka bottle as it exited the pneumatic tube."

The Master, by Colm Toibin (Scribner, $14). The inner life of Henry James, as imagined by Irish writer Toibin, has a drift toward the melancholy, a sense of the emotional and material life beyond his reach: "He wondered if at some point in the future he would go out of fashion even more than now, and if the dividends from his father's estate were to dry up, whether his reduced circumstances would represent a public humiliation. It came down to money, the sweetness it added to the soul. Money was a kind of grace. Everywhere he had been, the having of it and the holding of it had set people apart. It gave men a beautiful distant control over the world, and it gave women a poised sense of themselves, an inner light which even old age could not obliterate."

-- Jennifer Howard

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