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A "Basket Case" World; Tides of Memory

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A "Basket Case" World

Abandon all sense of reality if you read Carl Hiaasen's new novel " Basket Case" (Knopf, $25.95). As in all his stories, Hiaasen writes of a loony world peopled by totally improbable but wildly colorful people. In this new novel murder is committed in search of a song, and the reporter who tries to solve the mystery is almost as crazy as the culprits.

Those of us, however, who do not live in Miami cannot be equipped to judge the probability that such characters exist. Especially since Hiaasen, in a recent interview by Terry Gross on the NPR program "Fresh Air," described his hometown as "as weird as it gets."

Once the reader enters this weird world and accepts the premise of the story, the ride is entertaining, but it is also possible to get glimpses of Hiaasen that paint a different picture. He is a third generation Floridian who obviously loves the state he remembers from his childhood and is a serious environmentalist, who hates what the overdevelopment and sugar industry have done. We can catch a bit of his dedication to real newspapers and the service they perform — often unappreciated. His protagonist in "Basket Case" tells us: "I believed the job was important, a public service, and as a bonus it was unfailingly entertaining. Every new story was a fresh education in human guile and gullibility."

Those of us who occasionally read Hiaasen's twice-weekly column in the Miami Herald already know he is serious about making a positive difference. Those of us who read his novels know also that he has an over-the-top sense of humor.

Just for a finishing touch Hiaasen and musician Warren Zevon have written a song, also called "Basket Case," which you can hear on Zevon's next CD, "My Ride's Here." — Rozanne Epps

Tides of Memory

"Burning Marguerite" (Alfred A. Knopf, $23) is one of those rare books that invites you to lose yourself completely in its pages. In this novel, set on a small New England island, author Elizabeth Inness-Brown so precisely details the severe landscape and the minute details of human interaction, emotion and memory that is hard to know what parts of the novel are lifted from experience and which are not.

This is the first novel from Inness-Brown, a short-story writer, and "Burning Marguerite" at times seems like a collection of shorter tales — about ice-fishing, firefighting, family and solitude. The plot, however, compels you to read all the way through to the end, uninterrupted.

It begins with a death. James Jack, the 35-year-old protagonist, is not surprised to find his ancient Tante Marguerite cold in the forest. Still, there are too many questions that go unanswered with her passing. When James goes to the sheriff's office to report her death, he hesitates. "I'm not sure," he says to the clerk. She replies, "Not sure what? Not sure she's dead?"

"He shook his head. 'Not sure what happened.'"

The reader feels the same way. Who are these starkly defined characters, a stoic carpenter and a lifeless 94-year-old woman? Right from the start, Inness-Brown lets the reader know that all will be revealed in the end, by planting clues and questions throughout. Why is Marguerite missing a finger? Why was she shunned, and why did she leave the island and return? How did she become James Jack's guardian?

To explain, Inness-Brown tells a tale that flows, tidelike, back and forth in time. Beginning with the enigmatic death, the novel alternates between James Jack's struggle with grief and Marguerite's long life, which is revealed one vignette at a time.

Throughout, Inness-Brown's sense of place is finely tuned. She sends the reader to the lush gardens of New Orleans as easily as she conjures the unfurling spring on Chain Island. The same vivid motifs reappear in both settings: the scent of chicory coffee, the feel of fabric, the spicy taste of flowers.

This clarity of description is what enables the reader to get happily lost in the story. Yet it was at the end, where the mysterious tragedy of Marguerite's life is revealed, that I felt myself jerked away from Chain Island and back to the real world. The abrupt, wrenching moment I had been waiting for was of melodramatic proportions. I winced rather than gasped, and realized I was holding a book instead of watching the action unfold firsthand.

Still, "Burning Marguerite" is a beautiful book, and a world well worth entering. — Melissa Scott Sinclair

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