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A Centuries-Old Mystery

January 22, 1995|SUZANNE CURLEY

The greatest wizard of them all continues to inspire.

Merlin, the magician contemporary with King Arthur, makes his latest appearance in The Merlin Effect, by T. A. Barron (Philomel: $16.95; ages 10-14). Barron--whom critics compare to Madeleine L'Engle and C. S. Lewis-is the author of two previous fantasy novels, "Heartlight" and "The Ancient One," to which this latest book is a companion.

Kate, spending the summer with her oceanographer father in Baja California, is disappointed to find that he's far too busy researching sunken treasure to have any time for her. But the boring days are soon filled with an undersea adventure that sees Kate rubbing shoulders with ancient mariners, knights of yore, mournful whales, raging sea monsters and a host of other scary and fascinating creatures. And the key to unraveling a centuries-old mystery, luckily, comes to rest in this resourceful teen-ager's hands.

It's great to see a girl in the spotlight of an adventure this wild and woolly, and the tale has enough down-to-earth quality to appeal even to those who don't strictly consider themselves fantasy enthusiasts.

Also worth note: Trinidadian writer Merle Hodge's beautifully written novel For the Life of Laetitia (Aerial Fiction/Farrar, Straus, Giroux: $3.95 paperback; ages 12 and up) won the American Library Assn.'s award as best book for young adults of 1993. The novel's heroine feels mixed emotions about leaving her big extended family in the backwoods to go to high school in the city, which means living with the father she hardly knows and a new stepmother. Laetitia makes several new enemies--some nuns at school in addition to her stepmother--but the loss of a close new friend is what nearly derails her journey into this brave new world.

Another island tale: Although it is neither a novel nor specifically marketed to young adults, Esmeralda Santiago's memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican (Vintage: $11 paperback; ages 12 and up), reads like the best fiction. It is simply written and moves quickly enough to satisfy any teen-age reader's need for action. Following the author through her childhood in green and lush rural Puerto Rico to her teen-age years in gray and gritty New York City, the book is filled with touching scenes and funny moments--like when the U.S. government team arrives on the island to teach nutrition, touting outlandish things like powdered eggs, canned fish and decidedly non-tropical vegetables such as broccoli. (The book is also available in a Spanish language edition.)

A Part of the Sky (Knopf: $18; ages 9 and up) is veteran author Robert Newton Peck's sequel to "A Day No Pigs Would Die"; here, 13-year-old Rob buries his father and goes on to shoulder all the adult responsibility on their Depression-era Vermont farm--a tough but rewarding road.

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