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Armistead Maupin's "The Night Listener," Don and Petie Kladstrup"s "Wine and War," and "Choke,"

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Maupin's Back

If you're an Armistead Maupin fan but lost interest after the "Tales of the City" series, take heart: "The Night Listener" (HarperCollins, $26) will make you a fan again.

It also has a way cool cover.

Maupin's latest is a delightful tale about a best-selling writer, Gabriel Noone, who got his start reading his own serial stories on late-night public radio. (Maupin himself got his start by writing the "Tales" stories for serialization in a newspaper.) But now he's blocked — the words won't come, and his radio show has been forced into rebroadcasts as Noone tries to find his way. He blames his block on the fact that his longtime significant other, Jess, moved out on him.

His life is turned even more topsy-turvy when a publisher sends him a manuscript hoping for a glowing blurb to help sales. The book immediately captures Noone's attention in a way that nothing has since Jess left. The manuscript's author is a 13-year-old kid, Pete Lomax, whose book chronicles years of horrific sexual abuse at the hands of his parents. Pete is also a fan of Noone's radio broadcasts. (Thus, the title, "The Night Listener.")

Noone telephones the boy, who, he decides, is a gifted diarist, to offer encouragement, and it quickly becomes evident that Pete is attracted to Noone as a father figure. Their phone calls become a regular feature of Noone's life, lifting him from his despondency, and the friendship between the older man and the young teen-ager deepens dramatically.

Suddenly, however, questions Noone raises in all innocence begin to seem as though they have sinister answers, and the story takes a turn that makes the reader's heart lurch.

Maupin has woven a story that seamlessly draws the reader into the lives of two eminently likable people, one who believes that much of his life is behind him and another who knows that his future holds little promise. And although Maupin is America's premiere writer of gay fiction, his stories have proven they have the power to attract straight readers, too.

Now about that cover: it's created out of paper and semitransparent yellow plastic. "The" and "Listener" are printed on the plastic, while "Night" shows dimly through from the paper beneath. It's clever packaging that serves nicely to reinforce what's inside. — Don Dale

Hidden Treasure

On May 10, 1949, German forces marched west across the Maginot Line into France: The French army was overwhelmed and within six weeks, Nazi insignia were draped from Champagne to Bordeaux. Now under the formal and strict German occupation, the French began a political Resistance movement to protect their homeland from becoming a subordinate in a German-dominated New Order.

In "Wine and War" (Broadway Books, $24), journalists Don and Petie Kladstrup reveal the other French Resistance of World War II, that of the French winegrower's protection of their vineyards and wines from German plunder. The Kladstrups recount the stories of five prominent winemaking families and their efforts, from the German invasion and occupation until the war's end in 1945, to protect France's "purest treasure" — its wine.

Forced to sell to the Germans or no one at all, at prices the Germans set, the French began hiding, watering down and lying about the quality of their wines. They put holes into wine barrels on trains headed for Germany; they put false labels on bottles to make the vintages seem older and rarer, and then even made it a practice to drink their own valuable wines rather than let the Germans enjoy them. They allowed their chateaux to be used for nighttime drops of money, arms and supplies, for hiding Jews and for harboring American pilots shot down over France.

"Wine and War" is filled with amusing anecdotes of trickery and deceit, however, the authors have organized their material in such a rambling manner, that it is difficult to keep straight the names and events. Nevertheless, as it shifts from individual tales of bravery to the bigger story of how the war affected the French wine industry, it is an interesting read that history buffs and wine collectors alike will find fascinating — Joanna Donquis

Hidden Darkness

As he showed in his most famous book, "Fight Club," Chuck Palahniuk specializes in bringing the seamy underside of life right up to the surface. In "Choke" (Doubleday,$21.95), his most recent trawl through the margins of society, Palahniuk shows that he hasn't lost any of his vivid talent for depicting scatological events and scandalous attitudes. While his subjects seem marginal, in a hilarious, perverse and somewhat scary way, Palahniuk exposes the subconscious crosscurrents that define the modern world.

Ostensibly, "Choke" is the story of Victor Mancini, a sex addict whose loony ex-convict mother is dying in a long-term care facility. Victor spends his days working in Colonial Dunboro (a dead ringer for Williamsburg) where all the colonist/actors are stoned or otherwise strung out. His nights are spent pretending to choke to death in restaurants so he can bilk his Heimlich-maneuvering saviors for cash.

But beneath its dark and demented surface, "Choke" is a rumination on finding meaning in one's life. Its edgy postmodern methodology for exploring this theme will put off many readers but resonate with several more. For those who care about such things, Palahniuk even includes a passable mystery and a genuine surprise ending. Though there are a few sketchy and downright irritating interludes here, readers of "Choke" will find an entertaining and ultimately satisfying novel behind all the sex and gastro-intestinal distress.

Finally, those who still think that Palahniuk is just some sick twitch exercising his id should check out the book's web site to get the surprising story behind the story ( — D. L. Hintz

The Fantasy World

Harry Potter move over: C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia" is going to have some sequels, written not, of course, by Lewis, who died in 1963, but by others who promise to keep the spirit — if not the Christian references. HarperCollins has not yet announced the authors of the sequels.

And J.R.R. Tolkien will be on the front burner again in an upcoming trilogy of films from New Line Cinema and Houghton Mifflin's new one-volume movie tie-in paperback edition of "Lord of the Rings." One caveat: The paperback volume is so thick it looks as if it would fall apart before a reader finishes it.

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