A fine new voice; Unhappy in their own way; The roads taken and not taken 

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A fine new voice

Karin Slaughter will have a bright future if she keeps on doing what she did in her first novel, "Blindsighted" (William Morrow, $25). It's a corker of a psychological mystery.

The debut novel takes its name from one of the effects of ingesting a poisonous perennial that grows like a weed in the South. You've probably seen it. It produces purplish-brown, bell-shaped flowers and glossy black berries. The common name for it is deadly nightshade. They're not kidding about the "deadly" part.

Slaughter's protagonist is Dr. Sara Linton, a pediatrician who doubles as the coroner for a small town in rural Georgia. Within a few pages of the novel's opening, Linton discovers a dying woman in the restroom of the local diner. The victim, a college professor, has been raped and mutilated. She dies in Linton's arms. More victims follow as Linton works with her ex-husband, the town's police chief, to find a psychopath who has an Old Testament fixation.

Slaughter, a 30-year-old Georgia native herself, writes the kind of seemingly effortless prose that never calls attention to itself. It's a pleasure to read, because the taut and well-crafted plot seems to unfold by itself, without a hint of the author's struggle to make it work. Slaughter drives in a straight line toward the novel's suspenseful conclusion, leaving aside anything that would detract from the reader's satisfaction.

If you're satisfied with Slaughter's first, you'll be delighted to know she's already working on the second novel in what she plans as a trilogy. — Don Dale

Unhappy in their own way

Jonathan Franzen's third and highly addictive novel, "The Corrections" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, $26) is about the members of the Lambert family who are from a Midwestern town called St. Jude. The fact that this town is named after the patron saint of lost causes is telling about the depth and breadth of the dysfunctions of this particular family. There is the oldest son, Gary, whose deep depression, despite his financial and marital success, separates him from everyone close to him. The younger son, Chip, whose inability to articulate what he wants to be in life takes him from being the author of an unreadable screenplay to defrauding American investors in Lithuania. Denise, the daughter and successful cook, is plagued by her questionable sexuality.

The lives of these children, as much as they would hate to admit it, echo their parents': Albert, whose deterioration into Parkinson's disease and dementia make his life a living hell; and Enid, whose intolerance of anything other than the narrowness of Midwestern life is only matched by the unhappiness of her marriage. Franzen's gift is his ability to swing the reader into the lives of these vastly different characters while still showing the familial bonds that tie them to one another. The richness of the lives of his characters makes Franzen's book difficult to put down, each character's story in turn spurs the telling of the other's. Tolstoy wrote that unhappiness is that which makes families different from one another, but Franzen shows how it is this unhappiness that is the intrinsic element within all families. Especially in those from the Midwest. — Francis W. Decker

The roads taken and not taken

In each of her books Sue Miller tells a story that keeps us interested. But she does more: She dissects the effects our choices have on our lives and those of our children. She did this well in "While I Was Gone," and her new book, "The World Below" (Knopf, $25), again works this theme.

Catherine Hubbard (who tells this story in the first person) is a twice divorced woman who comes home from California to New England because she has inherited her grandmother's house there. When she was a child she lived with her grandparents.

In Vermont, she takes the time to rethink her choices and to learn more about her grandparents and their parents. Undergirding her life, she realizes, are generations that had their own loves and failures. They are the world below, and their choices have affected her life as, indeed, her choices will undoubtedly affect that of her granddaughter who is born at the novel's end.

Miller's writing is skillful; her story moves well. This is a book that should be rewarding to those who like to read on the surface but also to those who want some undergirding substance to the books they read. — Rozanne Epps


Diane Ackerman will sign her new book "Cultivating Delight, A Natural History of My Garden" at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden Oct. 30. 7-8:30 p.m. Ackerman's previous book was the popular "A Natural History of the Senses."


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