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Storytellers: New in October

September 18, 1988|DON G. CAMPBELL

Like the changing leaves of autumn, itself, the popular novelists bursting forth in October paint in equally bold strokes --vivid settings spreading from the verdant greenery of residential Atlanta to the dark and brooding, blood-reds of Bangkok's ghettos, to the rich browns of the Basque strongholds in Spain's Pyrenees Mountains.

In Ann Rivers Siddons' rich and meaty Peachtree Road, the author of such works as "Homeplace" and "Heartbreak Hotel" establishes herself in the front ranks of Southern writers. But while there are hints of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams in her work--the relationship between Shep Bondurant and his head-strong cousin, Lucy, has overtones, for instance--Siddons is her own woman in this absorbing tale of the love-hate bonds holding the Bondurant family together. And all of it is played against the background of an Atlanta that is facing the civil rights challenges of the '50s and its metamorphosis from sleepy gentility to that of a world class financial center.

In many ways, it's a tribute to the Atlanta gentry that quietly and subtly eased the city into integration with minimal trauma and, knowing, even as it did so, that it was irreparably--but necessarily--tearing down an old and gracious life style.

Although seen through Shep's eye, as the only son of the prominent Bondurants, this is equally Lucy's story, she of the questionable taste in men, her excesses and her eventual slip over the edge of rationality. While Siddons perhaps eases into her story a bit more leisurely than one might like, the reward--once the ground is laid and the characters shaped--is well worth it. "Peachtree Road" is a main selection of the Troll Book Club and is birthing with a major advertising campaign and six-city author tour.

With Peter Straub's Koko, the author of the well-received "Ghost Story" has woven an engrossing story about the impact of the Vietnam War on four veterans who return to Asia on a singular mission--to stop, and perhaps save, a member of their own platoon who has embarked on a trail of particularly brutal murders. Key players among the mismatched quartet are a pediatrician coping with a marriage falling apart and a failed lawyer still haunted by his role, and court-martial, during Vietnam as the central figure in a civilian massacre.

Don't dismiss this, though, as just another serial-killer tale even though the quartet's motivation for launching such a quixotic, and potentially dangerous, mission remains vague. As the four men prowl the seamy sides of Bangkok and Singapore in their search for their deranged comrade, it is how that war, 15 years earlier, has shaped (or warped) their characters that becomes the dominant force in the story. But a blood-chilling murder story it is, nevertheless. Are they after the right man, after all? Are the killings really as random as they seem? Why, suddenly, are the hunters turning out to be the hunted as the deadly stalking moves back from Asia to New York and to the Midwest as the noose tightens? But around whose neck? The denouement in a cavernous Chinatown basement is a hair-raiser. "Koko" is getting a major advertising send-off by Dutton.

One sometimes has the feeling that Sidney Sheldon could start out with four Cub Scouts, a dog named Spot and a West Los Angeles bag lady and, somehow, turn it into a torrid suspense novel. In The Sands of Time, he almost does just that. Known for his libido-strewn plot lines, what is the author of "The Other Side of Midnight" and "Master of the Game," to name just two, planning to do with four Spanish nuns driven from their convent in the government's attempt to crush the Basque movement for independence in northern Spain in the late 1970s? Well, throw in their savior in the person of the legendary Basque guerrilla hero, Jaime Miro, for openers; treachery among Miro's followers; one of the nuns who, we'll say, is flying under false colors; and a plot for financial control of a U.S. conglomerate that has its dark roots in the Spanish mountains. The possibilities for secular hanky-panky unfurl dramatically.

While Sheldon occasionally plays fast and loose with coincidences, and while his heroes swash until their knees buckle and his heroines all seem to be fresh-scrubbed from Central Casting, it doesn't change the basic facts a whit: The man tells a whale of a story.

When a hilarious joke falls flat, the standard escape route is: "Well, I guess you really had to be there." With Richard Bach's strained flights of fancy, the current one being One, it also helps to be there (wherever there may be). In this autobiographical novel, Bach and his wife--the Ken and Barbie of modern fiction, and awash in a tidal wave of non-stop endearments ("sweetie," "dearest" and "wookie" dominating)--embark on a magical flight in an amphibious plane that carries them back to their own past, forward to their own future and into so many golly-gee imaginary and exciting places that it just boggles the mind.

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