Recommended fiction

THE PASSION OF REVEREND NASH, by Rachel Basch, W.W. Norton, $23.95

The members of the Hutchinson Congregational Church in Connecticut wanted someone different, and they got it. Reverend Nash is a "dangerously tall" woman with big hair, the wrong clothes, and no embarrassment whatsoever. We see her praying, giving advice, trying to balance work with family, and struggling to live by what she preaches. Her sister considers her the "Paul Bunyan of spirituality," a characterization that perfectly captures her overwhelming nature. To what extent, this novel asks, is the healer really seeking redemption for herself? Basch has a cool, witty voice that holds steady even when the scenes she describes convulse with grief. This is a novel that acknowledges the potential for joy even in the bleakest moments, but the author knows such freedom is hard won and that the deepest spiritual wisdom sometimes comes not from the pulpit but straight from the whirlwind. (July 10)

THE HILLS AT HOME, by Nancy Clark, Pantheon, $25

Jane Austen is alive. What's more shocking, the grandmother of social satire has moved in with Jonathan Franzen, and the two of them have produced a love child called "The Hills at Home." There is no plot, per se, in Clark's debut novel, but rather a series of witty observations about the family members who come to visit Aunt Lily one summer and won't leave. The details and background of this blithely self-centered group come out slowly, and the only real action arrives so late that readers deaf to the novel's considerable charm will wander away before those scenes arrive. But beneath all the dry comedy lies the author's tenderness for these people and their affection for each other. Clark's indefatigable wit is an antidote for a dangerously serious world. (Feb. 13)

SIGNAL & NOISE, by John Griesemer, Picador, $26

Griesemer describes the struggle to lay a transatlantic cable in all its triumph and repeated failure. Though it bristles with historical detail, the story stays focused on Franny and Chester Ludlow, characters the author has invented to run through two parallel obsessions of the age: communicating with the living and communicating with the dead. He picks up every dot and dash of this fascinating history, conveying the boggling incongruity of the age. The novel stirs up a terrifying storm at sea just as well as it catches the faint waves of loneliness in a sickroom, drawing us through strands of 19th-century technology and timeless romance. (May 1)

I SHOULD BE EXTREMELY HAPPY IN YOUR COMPANY, by Brian Hall, Viking, $25.95

This novel, with its ungainly title, pursues the bravery of Lewis and Clark across 8,000 miles of unexplored wilderness in the Louisiana Purchase. But Hall is mostly concerned with what can't be explained: the blank pages in Lewis's journal, the gnawing pathos of his death, the unresolved contradictions between official records. Here's literature that saves one of the greatest American moments from the pastel palette of mythology. Hall has constructed a narrative as bracing and surprising as the journey itself. (Jan. 9)

THE KNOWN WORLD, by Edward Jones, Amistad, $24.95

Bizarre as it sounds, in Louisiana, Virginia, and South Carolina, a small number of free blacks once owned their own slave plantations. Jones uses this fragile situation as the setting for a novel about a group of black and white Virginians who tried - sometimes nobly, often viciously - to maintain their world in the face of inevitable collapse. The story revolves around Henry, a black man who, with the indulgence of his former owner, managed to buy his own farm and slaves. The scrambled collection of events and characters makes this a difficult story to enter, but that structure eventually accounts for much of the novel's evocative power. National Book Award nominee. (Aug. 14)

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