"Even Now"; "The Wild Blue"; "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" 

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The Road Not Taken

How do we justify the lives we have chosen for ourselves? How, especially, when we are faced with the seemingly fuller, more exciting life of someone else?

In Susan Kelley's second novel, "Even Now" (Warner Books, $22.95), she dramatizes with delicacy and insight the powerful influence that friendship exerts in the lives of women. The result is a strong and affecting narrative that takes the reader on one woman's path toward self-discovery.

Hannah Marsh and her husband, Hal, have recently moved to a small town in North Carolina to give their two children exposure to a simpler life. Hal has taken a teaching position at a private school, and Hannah looks forward to sharpening her gardening tools and planting skills. This idyllic picture is immediately clouded when Hannah meets Peter Whicker, an attractive member of the clergy who is also the spouse of her childhood best friend and soon-to-be nemesis Dainty O'Connor, a provocative, successful stockbroker. An attraction between Hannah and Peter develops leading Hannah to re-examine her own life, a process that is alternately shattering and profound. In determining the course of her future, Hannah is forced to take stock of her past with Dainty, and the lasting influence of their childhood friendship.

"Even Now" is genuine, contemporary fiction, with echoes of Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle. Susan Kelley is a graduate of Richmond's St. Catherine's School, and her literary light is a welcome addition to the City's multicentury roster of talented writers. — Lee Hall


"The Wild Blue," Stephen E. Ambrose (Simon & Schuster, $26) reminds me of the Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe, which describes how our country's best pilots were tested, trained, and then sent into space. "Wild Blue" portrays a similar scenario, but the setting is 20 years earlier, and the frontier is not space, but the mission is to drop bombs on the Nazi war machine at 25,000 feet.

This experienced author focuses on the military career of George McGovern and his crew to display the crude life and operations of a B-24 bomber in World War II. Much can happen when a pilot is manually flying a bulky, unresponsive plane in tight formation, hampered by 10,000 pounds of explosives, and open conditions of 20 to 50 degrees below zero. As a result, the U.S. Army lost more officers in the air than on the ground, and tragically, thousands of these men didn't even survive the training phase.

McGovern enlists, and becomes a pilot, only to realize he will probably die before completing his standard 35 missions. Flying is a young, hazardous sport, and strategic bombing has never been done. Our military leaders are using the result of each mission to prove or disprove their theories.

As Ambrose moves briskly from story to story, the huge differences between then and now become obvious. Who could recognize an America where we are not the world leader, our science is lacking, and the Army recklessly shuffles to improvise our air force? In conjunction with the times, the characters are like virgins, unsullied by the precision of today's technology, and untouched by every major event that has shaped American culture since 1945.

The characters' personalities and perspectives make clear that World War II veterans can almost be considered foreigners. The second half of the 20th century has progressed with such speed and the rites of passage produced by McGovern's time are all so different from today that we should feel fortunate to speak the same language as the era's survivors. — Jason Wilkins

Also of Note:

"Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" by Dai Sijie (Knopf, $18) is a little novel translated from the French by Ina Rilke. The story is written by a Chinese filmmaker who has lived and worked in France since 1984. In a mixture of straightforward story style and in what appears to be metaphor, the author tells of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution's "reeducation" program and of what a powerful effect literature can have on readers. Sometimes, as in this case, the effect is not what one would expect. Sijie has sold the movie rights.

Rozanne Epps


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