Frank Manley, who directs the creative writing program at Emory University, is better known as a poet, but this quiet, sure-footed novel is an auspicious and mature prose debut. It's about a 12-year-old boy named Sonny Cantrell, whose demanding father, Jake, the proprietor of the Snake Nation Cock Farm, presents him with a cock of his own. The prized gray has earned nearly $4,000 so far and a hard-won reputation as "the meanest son of a bitch chicken" around. Jake, however, teaches Sonny never to call a cock a chicken and never to give one a name. Nevertheless, Sonny names the gray "Lion," in honor of the cock's steadfastness, which, along with Sonny's efforts to win his father's respect, is mortally challenged when Sonny must pit Lion in a high-stakes cockfight. The fight, with its abundant suspense, gore and brutality, is unflinchingly rendered, as is Sonny's shocking effort to leave childhood behind.
-- MARK ROZZO
BIRDS OF AMERICA: Stories; By Lorrie Moore; Alfred A. Knopf: 288 pp., $23
Lorrie Moore, author of "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?," has something that many writers of her generation don't have: She is truly odd. Her characters--an-out-of-work actress on the lam from Hollywood, a mother and daughter on vacation in Ireland, a young boy with cystic fibrosis, a woman whose parents were killed in a car accident, a woman whose cat has died, an unlikely gay couple, a woman who accidentally killed a baby--find affection in unlikely places. Many have children tugging at their hearts. You end up liking people you didn't think you'd like, which always, in life and fiction, lifts the spirits. Moore's stories don't leave us in the solitary confinement that oddity can create, the way Diane Arbus did in her photographs, or Flannery O'Connor in her stories. They are the dance halls and constellations in which eccentricity becomes uniqueness.
-- SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS
THE RESTRAINT OF BEASTS; By Magnus Mills; Arcade: 214 pp., $22.95
"Bang Bang Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is the soundtrack to this brilliant, deadpan novel by Magnus Mills, ex-bus driver in London, ex-operator of "dangerous machinery" in Scotland and ex-fence builder. The novel never strays from its working-class roots; the author never betrays his characters, two Scottish fence builders (Tam and Richie) and their British foreman. "The main concern of farmers," thinks the narrator-foreman in an effort to understand his employers, "was that their fences should be tight. Without this the restraint of beasts was impossible." In a devious, subtle way high-tensile fencing and beast restraint become metaphors for working-class life in Scotland. They get their revenge for class oppression, all right, bizarre and final, but it's a vicious cycle they're caught in, and though Magnus is too good to preach, the desperation of the working class haunts these pages.
-- SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS
SHADOWS ON THE HUDSON; By Isaac Bashevis Singer; Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 550 pp., $28
Clocking in at 550 pages, "Shadows on the Hudson" is the fattest Isaac Bashevis Singer novel to appear since "The Manor" and "The Estate" about 30 years ago. It is, on the one hand, an unruly and chaotic roller coaster wallow of a book, discursive, repetitive and not exactly refined. Unashamedly melodramatic, with an emphasis on lust, sexuality and the cruder passions, it illustrates tendencies that the more genteel of Singer's Yiddish-language critics often objected to.
Yet for all its rawness--maybe even because of its rawness--"Shadows on the Hudson" is also one of Singer's most revealing novels. Under its rough surface, the author was playing with powerful material, dealing, albeit in lurid colors, with many of his key preoccupations and concerns. An ambivalence toward organized religion, a concern for the place of Jews in the modern era, the centrality of both sex and spirituality to the human condition--all get an airing here. This may be a Yiddish bodice ripper, but it is a distinctly philosophical one; "Melrose Place" joined to "A Guide for the Perplexed."
-- KENNETH TURAN
FLIGHTS OF ANGELS: Stories; By Ellen Gilchrist; Little, Brown: 336 pp., $24
Whether her subject is charmingly playful, like the eccentric Los Angeles medical clinic that gives aid and comfort to hypochondriacs in "Phyladda, or the Mind/Body Problem," or seriously scary, like "The Southwest Experimental Fast Oxide Reactor" that threatens a small community with nuclear contaminants, Ellen Gilchrist brings to each story an engaging sense of compassion and a saving sense of humor.
-- MERLE RUBIN
INGRATITUDE; By Ying Chen; Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 154 pp., $20