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Bookshelf / Reader's Choice

Surviving and Still Laughing

April 30, 1998

The novel that did not stay long on my night table is "Zabelle" by Nancy Kricorian (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998). This first novel is told in the first person through the eyes of Zabelle Chahasbanian. Now ensconced in a suburb of Boston, what a tale she has to tell.

Zabelle recounts her childhood in Turkey, where she survives the 1915 genocide. Losing all family members on the trek out, she faces near-starvation in the Syrian desert. In a series of fortunate circumstances, she spends a few years in an Istanbul orphanage, is hired as a family cook in a Turkish home, is whisked away and adopted by a wealthy Armenian family and then sent to America for an arranged marriage to an Armenian grocer.

Through all kinds of horrific adversity, Zabelle survives and lives her life with a sense of humor.

"Zabelle" has moved on to my friend's night table, as all good books should travel.

TINA ARRANAGA KUBASEK, Whittier

*

I'm a big fan of the Benjamin Justice mysteries by John Morgan Wilson because they are set in Los Angeles and rich in character, social realism and geographic detail.

Wilson deals to some extent with gay subject matter and themes. His style can be sexually frank, but for the more adventurous reader, especially those who enjoy a darker look at sunny Los Angeles, he's as good as you'll find.

His first novel, "Simple Justice" (Doubleday, 1996), won an Edgar. It introduces Justice as a down-and-out ex-reporter mourning the death of his lover from AIDS, and his sidekick, Alexandra Templeton, a young African American reporter whose career is on the rise.

Wilson's newest one, "Revision of Justice" (Doubleday, 1997), takes the reader into the weird Hollywood world of wannabe screenwriters with complexity, credibility and detail. To my mind, there is a haunted quality and unflinching honesty about Wilson's work that elevates it above much of the rest of the mystery genre.

LYNN OSBORN, West Hollywood

*

"The Calling of Katie Makanya" by Margaret McCord is an engrossing book that reads like a novel but is a true story.

Makanya, a black woman born in South Africa in 1873, went to England at 17 to sing for Queen Victoria. After three years there, she abandoned a promising singing career to return to South Africa to marry and raise a family of nine children.

At 30, she found the "calling" that became her life's passion: working in Durban among the Zulus as an interpreter and nurse for a white American missionary doctor.

The perspective of this extraordinary woman from a different culture and time provokes laughter and tears. This book transcends race, gender and culture to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit.

RUTH ABEL, Woodland Hills

*

In "Destiny's Godchild," a "novel of intrigue and enchantment in Frankish Gaul," by Diana Johnson (Superior Book Publishing Co.), Egar, a clever magician with talents in music and healing, is equally welcomed as a guest in the palaces and the mud huts of France during AD 617. Through his eyes, we are privy to the power struggles of rulers. Lands are lost, heads roll.

At times, Egar fears for his life and resorts to magic to save himself. Is he human, a sorcerer or a changeling? With the guidance of his master, Egar discovers he is human with man's innate need to love.

The story is a skillfully woven record of years of struggle in an emerging nation. The author balances historic details, man's greed and the hazards of primitive life with the same expertise as Egar juggles his six sharp knives.

This is a great nighttime book. It is small, has a silky feel to it, sharp print and a smart layout. Also, I can open it to any page and, as if it were my first time, become immersed in the quick pace of the tale. "Destiny's Godchild" will remain a night table favorite until the sequel--"Pepin's Bastard"--is available.

BETTY FREEMAN, Sherman Oaks

* What's that book on your night table? Any good? Send us a review. We're especially interested in hearing about fiction that you don't see reviewed in The Times, but feel free to send us your opinions of whatever it is you are reading. Keep the reviews short (200 words tops), and send them (with your phone number) to Readers Reviews, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or fax them to (213) 237-0732. We'll print the most interesting ones every other week. Sorry, but submissions cannot be returned.

* Next Week: Cathy Curtis on art and photography books.

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