Natural Born Killers

Liza Ward has chosen an unusually grim bit of history from which to craft her impressive debut -- or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the subject has chosen her. Outside Valentine (Holt, $23) is a fictionalized account of serial killers Caril Ann Fugate and Charlie Starkweather's 1958 rampage across the Midwest. Fugate was 14 years old and had just failed eighth grade when she hooked up with the 19-year-old Starkweather, a frustrated garbage collector and James Dean wannabe. Their killing spree resulted in 11 deaths -- including the author's paternal grandparents -- and has fueled imaginations for decades, inspiring such movies as "Badlands," "Wild at Heart" and "Natural Born Killers."

Ward focuses less on the gore than on the aftermath; she projects more than 30 years ahead to examine the emotional toll the murders still extract from an orphaned son, Lowell, and his wife, Susan, who has her own connection to the events. Living in New York, they find their marriage on the verge of collapse when an overdue bill for a safety-deposit box arrives. Lowell's refusal to deal rationally with the matter -- he neither wants to pay the $3,000 balance nor confront the contents of the box -- is the narrative device that propels this story back in time.

Ward ambitiously weaves together three first-person voices, crisscrossing decades. At times the voices of Susan and Lowell seem to blur, unified by their depressing tones. Caril Ann's voice, in contrast, is initially quite jarring as she blends crude vernacular speech with very literary observations: "I made for the cool shadows of the cottonwoods on the edge of the field, gnarled and gray in the sun. The leaves danced like yellow pennies in hot little fingers." Any rough edges smooth, however, as the story builds momentum.

A gifted writer, Ward uses simple imagery to chilling effect. A dog with a broken neck hiding under the bed after its owner has been murdered and a dead schoolgirl with her skirt pulled up -- Starkweather says he just wanted to look -- are as vivid as anything filmmakers have fashioned from the same raw material.

In Patagonia

Beneath the edgy, urban San Francisco exterior of Stacey D'Erasmo's eloquent second novel beats the heart of a conventional family drama. Her characters include a self-conscious artist, who spends years trying to paint the perfect tree, and the artist's lover, an earthy mother who boycotts Starbucks and casts a weary eye over the gentrification of her city. Yet the parenting dilemmas and family values portrayed in A Seahorse Year (Houghton Mifflin, $24) would translate into any dull suburban setting.

When 16-year-old Christopher goes missing, leaving a kitchen knife plunged into the floor of his bedroom, the resulting tensions test the loyalties of his shaken family. Christopher lives with his mother, Nan, and her longtime partner, Marina. Nan's all-consuming grief, and her assumption that Marina can't truly empathize, threaten to destroy their relationship. Although equally distraught, Christopher's father, Hal, has an approach to crisis management that's more reflective of his own careful, cerebral personality.

While the adult subplots are engaging, Christopher's harrowing story provides the centrifugal force of this novel. D'Erasmo, whose first novel was the acclaimed Tea, convincingly gets inside the troubled mind of a teenaged boy and makes the horrors of his mental illness strangely lyrical. For instance, Christopher is haunted by the idea of traveling to Patagonia; every time he sees a passerby wearing a fleece jacket with the synonymous brand-name logo, he believes he is being given a signal. The result is at once funny and terrifying.

The present-tense voicing and quick splicing between scenes lend a nice sense of urgency to the narrative. As Hal heads to visit Christopher in a psychiatric institute, he muses that the purpose of his life is "this exact drive, on this exact day, at this exact moment." One can almost imagine Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway reflecting on a certain moment in June.

Fragmented Lives

Tikkun olam is a Hebrew phrase that means "repair the world," and this imperative serves as the narrative catalyst of Broken for You (Grove, $23), Stephanie Kallos's sweet if strained debut. At the center of the novel is a troubled young woman who has made her way across the country in pursuit of a wayward boyfriend. Wanda is an emotional wreck who spends much of her time crying and writing affirmations -- pithy, positive lies about life along the lines of "A loving relationship awaits me" -- in her notebook.

This is a novel of redemption, much of it fueled by the good deeds of a wealthy Seattle heiress named Margaret Hughes. When 75-year-old Margaret discovers she has a brain tumor, she makes a series of radical changes. She takes a live-in lover and proceeds to fill the rooms in her mansion with enough charming, loopy boarders to fill out the cast of a sitcom. In a more urgent emotional matter, she attempts to come to terms with the objects that both sustain and haunt her: valuable china that her calculating father looted from Jewish households in Europe during World War II. From Margaret's cathartic act of breaking the pottery comes the inspiration to have Wanda -- the first of her boarders -- reassemble the shards in mosaic form, sometimes with dramatic images from the Holocaust. As Wanda recovers from a near-fatal accident, the mosaic work proves not only therapeutic but political and artistically viable.

The novel itself is a mosaic of eccentric characters and their interlocking storylines, which sometimes border on the fantastic. A hard-living, wandering Irishman not only befriends an elderly Jewish woman whom he meets at the bowling alley but also becomes her best friend and regularly colors her hair for her. Long-lost family members are reunited by chance, and stolen china finds its way back to its rightful owner in the nick of time. So lovely is the world Kallos has created that it seems more reparative to curl up on the couch with this book and suspend belief than to deconstruct the plot.

Down on the Farm

The Real Minerva (Houghton Mifflin, $24), Mary Sharratt's quiet novel about small-town life in 1920s Minnesota, seems an anomaly in this age of splashy marketing. It comes wrapped in such an unassuming package that it is unlikely to raise the pulse of any bookstore browser, and even the author blurb suggests a sleepy read: We're told that Sharratt leads workshops around the country on the subject of women and fairy tales, and that she drew on her mother's and grandmother's stories of farm life as inspiration.

It comes as a pleasant surprise, then, that this second book from Sharratt (after Summit Avenue) is both lively and memorable, and also a reminder that it is possible to craft a good, old-fashioned novel from the most basic elements. Sharratt describes the limited options of a 15-year-old girl forced to drop out of high school to help her mother as a domestic servant. Penny and her mother keep house for a wealthy local family whose mistress has been in a nursing home for four years, felled by the "sleeping sickness" (encephalitis lethargia, Sharratt explains in her notes). After a fight with her mother, Penny flees to a remote farm to become the "hired girl" of a mysterious woman whose strange dress and independent spirit have tongues wagging in this conservative, gossipy town.

Although the story line sometimes veers toward melodrama and some of the many historical details begin to feel gratuitous (it may be educational and even titillating to learn about pornography and sexual mores in the 1920s, for example, but some of the details seem out of context), this is a well-researched and entertaining period piece. The rural Minnesota of 80 years ago may not be an obvious place to mine for literary treasure, but Sharratt proves otherwise. *

Susan Coll's novel "Rockville Pike" is forthcoming in January.