COOL READS FOR HOT DAYS

CONFUSION By Elizabeth Jane Howard Pocket Books 341 pp., $22 THE ARMSTRONG TRILOGY: FROM THE HEAT OF THE DAY, ONE GENERATION, GENETHA By Roy Heath Persea Books 552 pp., $15 paper BAD HAIRCUT: STORIES OF THE SEVENTIES By Tom Perrotta Bridge Works 197 pp., $18.95 SINGING SONGS By Meg Tilly Dutton, 242 pp., $19.95 BLACK BETTY By Walter Mosley W.W. Norton 255 pp., $19.95 DOWNTOWN By Anne Rivers Siddons HarperCollins 374 pp., $24 SISTERS & LOVERS By Connie Briscoe Harpercollins 339 pp., $22 HOME AND AWAY By Joanne Meschery Simon & Schuster 284 pp., $21 BLACKER THAN A THOUSAND MIDNIGHTS By Susan Straight Hyperion, 388 pp., $21.95 HOUSE OF SPLENDID ISOLATION By Edna O'Brien Farrar Straus Giroux 232 pp., $21 SHERMAN'S MARCH By Cynthia Bass Random House 228 pp., $21 FIVE BLACK SHIPS By Napoleon Baccino Ponce de Leon Translated by Nick Caistor Harcourt Brace 347 pp., $23.95

THE perfect summer read comes in many shapes and sizes. It might be something long - to while away the extra hours; or something short - to slip into a backpack or beach-bag; or something light and diverting - for overtaxed brains in need of a break; or something a little heavier - for those who see vacation as an opportunity to take on new challenges.

My idea of the perfect summer read is something that is thoroughly entertaining and beyond that, deeply satisfying: a story you can really sink your teeth into. For the past several years, British novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard has been creating just this kind of story in her ongoing series of novels, ``The Cazalet Chronicle,'' about an upper-middle class family (not unlike John Galsworthy's Forsythe clan) in the years leading up to and into World War II. There are three volumes so far: The first two, ``The Light Years'' and ``Marking Time,'' are already available in paperback from Pocket Books; the third, Confusion, has just come out in hardcover this spring.

While it makes sense to read them in order, it is not necessary: You can plunge in at any point and go back and read the earlier books later. The characters are so fully realized, their various storylines so involving, and the world in which they live so vividly evoked that one soon feels one has known these people all one's life: reliable Hugh Cazalet, severely wounded in World War I; his philandering brother Edward; soulful Rupert, the youngest brother; their never-to-be-married sister Rachel; the brothers' various wives and children - not to mention servants, friends, lovers, nannies, and a governess. There's everything one expects from a good, old-fashioned soap opera and much more.

In addition to providing a well-wrought family saga, Elizabeth Jane Howard is a sensitive and unusually gifted writer with a lively style and a protean ability to imagine her way into the minds of a host of different characters: men, women, boys, girls, frustrated wives, shy teenagers, even petulant six-year-olds.

The novels are richly textured, filled with details that bring the Cazalets' world to life: what they wore, what they ate, what flowers grew in their gardens. As the Cazalet cousins enter adolescence under the shadow of World War II, the reader also gains entry to a by-gone moment of British history, re-created here in a story as intricate, palpable, and interesting as life.

The Armstrong Trilogy, comprising three novels by the Guyanese writer Roy Heath (``From the Heat of the Day,'' ``One Generation,'' and ``Genetha,'' now available in a single paperback volume) at first glance looks like a black equivalent of a saga like the Cazalets'. But a story that begins on a note of social comedy before long turns into a stark tale of frustration and tragedy.

Gladys Davis, daughter of the Georgetown elite, shocks her stuffy family by marrying Sonny Armstrong, a clever youth from the wrong side of the tracks. But Sonny's aspirations are stifled by a lack of economic opportunities. With no room to develop and nowhere to go, he cruelly takes out his frustrations on his hapless wife.

In the middle and final volumes, we watch as first the Armstrongs' son, Rohan, and then their daughter, Genetha, struggle to break free, only to find themselves trapped by the limitations of the society they inhabit. Heath's tersely direct narrative style enhances the power of this harshly poignant tale.

On a lighter note, Tom Perrotta's appealing first novel, Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies, covers a decade in the life of a likable boy growing up in a working-class neighborhood in New Jersey. We first meet Buddy as a Cub Scout getting ready to meet ``The Weiner Man,'' who tours shopping centers dressed to resemble a new brand of hot dog. Buddy, who's already met such celebrities as Cap'n Crunch and the Pillsbury Doughboy, plans to ask if the Weiner Man has met Chef Boy-R-Dee.

Buddy's world soon expands to include more serious matters, from encounters with the opposite sex to drugs, racial tensions, and pals who get into trouble with the law. Relating these stories in his own voice, Buddy is an entirely believable character, whose adventures will delight anyone who remembers the funny mixture of sophistication and naivete that is adolescence.

In Singing Songs, a first novel by actress Meg Tilly, the voice we hear is that of a little girl, scarcely out of diapers as the story begins. Anna, along with her older siblings, Susan and Matthew, and baby Katie, are about to become part of a larger family, when their mother, a pretty divorcee, marries a divorced man with children of his own. But it gradually becomes apparent that these grownups are unfit to look after goldfish, let alone children.

Although Anna is too young to grasp just how massively dysfunctional this extended family is, the glimpses revealed through her innocent yet perceptive eyes are truly bizarre. Tilly has done a fine job of capturing her young heroine's quick mind, plangent voice, and the vibrant spirit that helps her survive her rocky upbringing.

For mystery fans, Walter Mosley's Black Betty continues the adventures of Easy Rawlins, the black private investigator from South Central Los Angeles who is the single parent of two adopted children. The action takes place in 1961, with Rawlins investigating the disappearance of a sable-skinned seductress who was working as a housemaid to rich white folks in Beverly Hills. Mosley's complicated characters, gritty situations, and ability to evoke the feel of a given place and time reach out to a readership beyond hardcore mystery lovers.

Popular novelist Anne Rivers Siddons offers a return trip to the 1960s in her new novel, Downtown, complete with a title shared with Petula Clark's hit song. The downtown in this case is Atlanta in 1966, and the young woman about to explore its excitement and challenges is a formerly sheltered, parochial-school graduate from sleepy Savannah, Ga. who's just been hired to work on Atlanta's new, cutting-edge magazine, which happens to be called ``Downtown.''

At 26, ``Smoky'' O'Donnell is young for her age - breakfast at the International House of Pancakes strikes her as a foray into exotic terrain, but she is also eager to take part in the unfolding era of change heralded by go-go dancers on the one hand and civil rights marchers on the other. She gets to see both sides of the so-called ``revolution'': the inspiring sense of freedom as well as some of the nastier consequences of its misuse. Smoky's career in journalism, her involvement with a rich aristocrat, a free-form photographer, and a civil rights activist make for a somewhat generic, but nonetheless involving story.

This season has seen a number of novels tracking the lives of three or four female protagonists - buddies, sisters, roommates, or college chums. Among the more engaging of these is Connie Briscoe's Sisters & Lovers. Evelyn, Charmaine, and Beverly are three black sisters living in Washington. Evelyn, the eldest, has a seemingly ideal life: a career as a psychologist, a handsome lawyer husband, two nice kids, and a beautiful house in the suburbs. But somewhere in this perfect picture there's a hidden flaw. Beverly, the youngest sister, is single and fancy-free, but having a tough time finding a man she can trust. Middle sister Charmaine has a husband and a son, but her spouse has a bad habit of spending his wife's hard-earned salary faster than she can earn it.

Reluctant at first to reveal their problems, the sisters learn to share their feelings and experiences, becoming good friends as well as relatives in the process. Briscoe, a first-time novelist, succeeds admirably in delineating the three distinctive viewpoints and displays a wry sense of humor in recounting the trials of single and married life.

Humor in the face of adversity is also the hallmark of Joanne Meschery's seriocomic third novel, Home and Away. Hedy Gallagher Castle works as a border guard, inspecting incoming vehicles for fruit, vegetables, or animals carrying potentially damaging pests into the Golden State. In the little California town where she lives, a religious fundamentalist campaign is being waged in the schools. Meanwhile, the Gulf war looms in the background.

Hedy is a competent woman with more than her share of common sense, which she's going to need. She has a teenage daughter on the hotly competitive school basketball team, a father suffering mental confusion in the wake of a stroke, and an absentee husband off trying to ``find himself.'' As Hedy copes with problems in her family and the larger community, she also has to deal with the attentions of a male admirer drawn by her state of grass-widowhood. Narrating her own story, Hedy emerges as a very ordinary woman of extraordinary decency.

Susan Straight, whose critically acclaimed first novel, ``I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots,'' took readers inside the head of a long-suffering, but gutsy Gullah woman, now offers a teeming chunk of contemporary life as experienced by a straight-arrow young black man.

The hero of Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights is Darnell Tucker, who's been working as a firefighter during the Southern California brush-fire season. Darnell wants nothing more than to settle down with his fiancee Brenda and help support their soon-to-be-born child. He would like to fight fires full-time, but the prospect seems unlikely in an era of budget cuts.

All around him the young men he's grown up with are getting into trouble: drugs, guns, and danger are everywhere. Straight's thickly detailed, complex evocation of Darnell, his family, friends, neighborhood, and the surrounding landscape of the arid Southern California wilderness make for a memorable portrait of an upright young man left high and dry by a parched economy.

The prolific Irish-born, London-based Edna O'Brien occupies a border-land somewhere between popular fiction and the realms of ``higher'' literature. Her new novel, House of Splendid Isolation, is a rather murky, though lyrical, account of an escaped Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorist hiding out in a country house he wrongly thought to be deserted. The place in fact is inhabited by an elderly widow, who comes to regard her uninvited guest with a mixture of sympathy, anxiety, and disapprobation.

The narrative keeps shifting, not only between the viewpoints of terrorist and widow, but also to the perspectives of others involved in pursuit of the fugitive. Time shifts as well, between the immediate present and the distant past in a way that seems needlessly confusing. Readers who admire O'Brien's sonorous prose and aura of passionate intensity will still find these qualities here. But fresh insights into the continuing ``troubles'' in Ireland are somewhat scarce.

A remarkably fresh look at a controversial moment in history is offered by Cynthia Bass in her novel Sherman's March. The Union Army's devastating trek through Georgia is presented here from the perspectives of three witnesses: a 25 year-old Southern war widow named Annie; a humane, profoundly decent Union officer named Nick; and the man who masterminded the whole event, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman himself.

The characters are vividly drawn, the action pithily and lucidly recounted, and the reasons for Sherman's decision convincingly explained. First-time novelist Bass displays an impressive blend of analytical intelligence, historical authenticity, and vigorous story-telling in this poignant yet tough-minded look at the ways in which the necessities of war lead soldiers and civilians to perpetrate and endure acts unthinkable in peacetime and illogical even in the context of war.

Another first-time novelist tackling a grand historical subject is Napoleon Baccino Ponce de Leon, a literary critic from Montevideo, Uruguay. His Five Black Ships (translated by Nick Caistor) is a poetic, harrowing, imaginative reconstruction of Portuguese explorer Fernando Magellan's attempt to circumnavigate the globe in 1519.

The story is narrated by Juanillo Ponce, a dwarf jester who managed to attach himself to this daring and, he thinks, half-mad expedition and who has survived to tell of its wonders and horrors.

An insider by virtue of his profession (the lords and captains allow a jester certain liberties, because his humor and his tiny stature render him unthreatening in their eyes), Juanillo is also a classic outsider. As a Spanish Jew converted to Christianity, he is never entirely comfortable in his skin, never truly accepted by the ``purebred'' Christians he lives among.

Yet his gifts as a storyteller bring him into close contact with the expedition's otherwise unapproachable, icy leader, Fernando Magellan, whom his fellow captains rightly fear. Juanillo's spell-binding, intensely evocative account of the voyage captures the strange blend of idealism and cynicism, courage and cowardice, tedium and high drama that may well indeed have characterized this astonishingly bold venture. ``Five Black Ships'' may be its author's first novel, but it is an exceptionally assured and accomplished work.

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