Rafael Alvarez's "Orlo and Leini" and Bill Bryson's "In a Sunburned Country" 

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Clandestine Romance in Cabbage Alley
Orlo and Leini, (Woodholme Publishers, $14.95) Rafael Alvarez's latest story collection, is a good read for the literary crowd. This isn't mindless prose you'd fall asleep with in the sand; this is as delicate as the pig's feet that play an important role in the collection.

Set in Baltimore's Cabbage Alley, the book's five short stories and novella each connect somehow to the clandestine romance of the junkman Orlo and the Greek cook Leini. Some stories focus directly on their relationship, their love for each other and for a meal of pig's feet, while other stories make the reader search for the connection to the lovers.

"Down at the End of Clinton Street" opens the book at Orlo's funeral, Leini bearing his ashes and the weight of her grief. "Orlo's Velvet Room" centers on their physical relationship while "Red Cabbage and Apples" shows the depth of Orlo's love as he takes Leini to a Chinatown herb doctor to be healed of the grief she has carried since her son's death. "People Love Lies," gives insight to George's (Leini's husband, the Bad Guy) reaction to his wife's enduring affair. "Christmas Eve" only peripherally touches on the romance of Orlo and Leini, exploring instead other love stories through Wigmann (Leini's best friend's nephew — this all takes a few minutes to untangle) and Wigmann's cousin Basilo, an 8-year-old who wakes up "with the knowledge that he was an artist." The novella, "The Legend of the Velvet Room," is the furthest removed chronologically from Orlo and Leini's affair. Decades later, Trixie Loo is an intern at the Baltimore Sun who becomes obsessed with covering the story of Cabbage Alley's demise and the lovers who once thrived there.

Orlo and Leini's romance comes to the reader through the subtle whispers of these stories. Alvarez ensures that the stories could stand on their own by repeating certain phrases in multiple stories, a device that, unfortunately, begins to feel redundant. But the language in Alvarez's work is carefully crafted, and the rewards for the patient reader are great.

— J.B. Shelleby

Down Under with Bryson
Bill Bryson has a knack for turning a travel book into a thriller. He proves it again with his latest, "In a Sunburned Country," (Broadway Books, $25), which chronicles his adventures in Australia.

Before reading Bryson's latest, I never knew Oz and the Ozzies (who speak a variety of English they affectionately call "Strine"), were so fascinating.

What's not to like, Bryson asks, about a country that picked the supremely satisfying word "Tittybong" as a name for a real place?

Bryson writes like regular guys talk, and he's not one to gush foolishly in print — except occasionally, when it's warranted. He likes museums — museums memorializing anything — but at the end of the day he likes a beer or two or sometimes more. He doesn't stick to the standard tourist sites. Rather, he goes where his nose takes him, and his serendipitous finds make his travels far more interesting than yours or mine.

Nor does he inevitably paint a rosy picture. The reader doesn't even get past page six before finding out that of the world's 10 most deadly snakes, all are Australian. And five other creatures found on the island continent are the most lethal of their type in the world.

But when he is awestruck by something, he gets almost dewy-eyed. Such is the case when he encounters a rare monotreme in a park in Perth. (Other than their mouths, Bryson explains, monotremes have only one orifice; thus the name.) Bryson's monotreme experience was with an echidna, a creature similar to a hedgehog. It crossed his path in King's Park, and when it noticed Bryson, it curled up into a defensive ball. "In a country filled with exotic and striking life forms my high point was finding a harmless, animated pincushion in a city park," he writes.

Bryson's word picture of Australia and its people clearly shows that he relishes both. And so will those who read this engaging, humorous and delightfully written paean to the Land Down Under.

— Don Dale

Heads-Up: Anne Newton Walther, who was raised in Virginia and whose father was a William and Mary-trained lawyer, will be in Richmond to sign her historical novel "A Time for Treason" at Wilton House Museum on Monday, July 17, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and at Carytown Books from 5 to 6:30 p.m. that same day.

And in case you have been hiding under a rock, here's amazing book news: The fourth Harry Potter book ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") will be released on July 8 — and not a moment before. To accommodate the eager, many book stores will open at midnight. These include Borders, Book People and Barnes & Noble. Narnia and Edward T. Rabbit will not be among the midnight patrol because they are children's bookstores and the little people should not be out buying books at midnight. Edward T. Rabbit will host a breakfast at 8:30 a.m. on July 8 and Barnes & Noble will have a Harry Potter pickup party on July 8 at 11 a.m.

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