by Iain Pears

It is 1663, and England is wracked with intrigue and civil strife. When an Oxford don is murdered, it seems at first that the incident can have nothing to do with great matters of church and state. Who poured the arsenic into the victim's brandy? The evidence points to Sarah Blundy, a servant girl who had motive and opportunity. She confesses to the crime and is sentenced to be hanged.

Yet little is as it seems in this gripping novel, which dramatizes the ways in which witnesses can see the same events yet remember them falsely. Each of four narrators—a Venetian medical student, a young man intent on proving his late father innocent of treason, a cryptographer and an archivist—fingers a different culprit. Each one gives us a mere "simulacrum of verity," as the most reliable of them puts it, and part of the novel's pleasure is figuring out the truth from accounts that are tinged with conscious fabrication in one case and with the distortions of obsession, paranoia and passion in the others. The central enigma concerns the character of Sarah Blundy. Is she a radical? A witch? A prophetess?

An Instance of the Fingerpost has an ungainly title and is probably too long. While reading it, you will learn more about the mores, beliefs and prejudices of 17th-century England than you might have thought compatible with page-turning fiction. But like The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco's surprise bestseller of 1983, this is an erudite and entertaining tour de force. (Riverhead, $27)

by Jo-Ann Mapson

Fresh starts are never easy, but for pregnant, impetuous, 34-year-old Chloe Morgan, whose heart is as broken as her front tooth, the past is inescapable.

In Jo-Ann Mapson's fourth novel (a sequel to her popular Hank & Chloe), the part-time waitress and horse trainer and her long-suffering boyfriend have fled California for the wilds of northern Arizona, where they live in a cabin on Hank's meager salary as a third-grade teacher, waiting for their baby to come. But it's the arrival of handsome Junior Whitehorse, acclaimed Navajo artist, that upsets the delicate balance of their unwed bliss. For Chloe, who has never before faced a dilemma that a horseback ride could not fix, Junior's ardor for her proves irresistible. Mapson's tale truly gets into high gear when Chloe, adopted as a child, learns she may have located her birth mother. In fact, Chloe, Hank and Junior are all orphans of sorts, seeking answers about mothers they never knew. Mapson's storytelling is at times slow-moving, but she has drawn compelling characters for her fable of interconnectedness and absolution. (Harper Flamingo, $24)

by Molly Ivins

Radio host Rush Limbaugh once attacked Molly Ivins on the air, an experience the liberal political columnist describes as "somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn't actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle." An assault by Ivins, on the other hand, can sting, as this collection of her acerbic, down-home pieces, mostly from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, makes clear. Though she generally defends President Clinton, she nevertheless finds him "weaker than bus-station chili." Nothing is sacred. Warmly eulogizing her 84-year-old mother in 1997, she concludes, "Looking on the bright side, at least we'll never have to eat turnip fluff again." Though Ivins is surely one of the nation's most adroit political commentators, many of the biggest chuckles in this book come from her observations of everyday Americana—like the dearth of high heels in Berkeley, Calif.: "If there are hookers in this town," she says, "they wear Rockports." One 1994 column opened with a vintage taste of her front-porch wisdom: "Life's a funny ol' female-dog, idn't she?" With Ivins writing, she surely is. (Random House, $23)

by Rosario Ferré

In this incandescent novel, Rosario Ferré, the acclaimed Puerto Rican writer (and daughter of former governor general Luis A. Ferré), dramatizes the truth that the stories we tell about ourselves are always rooted in our larger family histories.

Ferré's simple yet magical prose locates her story of the fictional Vernet and Rivas de Santillana families in the larger context of Puerto Rico's political, social and economic development over the past century. Their evolution, from small sugar growers to large cement manufacturers, mirrors the transformation of the island itself. Through her narrator, Elvira, Ferré evokes what she calls "the voices of those I could no longer see, and whose stories I could not have dreamed"—of parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins—whose experiences of passion, greed, ambition and sacrifice help Elvira understand who she is.

At the end of the novel, by establishing her own career as a professor, Elvira breaks free from the patriarchal constraints that shackled her mother and aunts. Celebrating Elvira's hard-won independence, the novel also celebrates her birth as an emerging artist. Ferré's attention to her ancestral voices results in putting her powerfully in touch with her own. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24)

by Anne Rice

For fans of Anne Rice's vampire books, this fictional memoir holds a lot of promise. In it, newly initiated vampire David Talbot—a former member of the Talamasca Society, an organization that collects tales of the supernatural—has persuaded the ancient, enigmatic Pandora to write the story of how the elder vampire Marius came to bestow the Dark Gift of immortality upon her more than 2,000 years ago.

But the promising premise falls flat because Pandora comes off as a pill and her story lacks the drama and sensuality of Rice's other best-selling vampire tales. Pandora spends an annoyingly long time pointing out how clever, wealthy, high-born and independent she was as a mortal girl growing up in ancient Rome, where Marius fell in love with her. Once Marius nibbles on Pandora's neck, they live together and engage in 200 years of banal squabbling.

The historical details about classical Roman society—its politics, literature, dress and values—do add up to a fascinating picture, but only the most ardent readers, with an insatiable thirst for Rice's vampire chronicles, will find this one satisfying. (Knopf, $19.95)

by David Halberstam

Journalists often move along the surface of history like stones skipping across a stream. David Halberstam goes deeper, taking the measure of society's savage currents and treacherous shoals. With The Children, he revisits a story he covered as a 25-year-old reporter for the Nashville Tennessean. On a winter day in 1960, a handful of black college students in downtown Nashville quietly took seats at whites-only lunch counters and waited to be served. "I think I knew," he writes, "that these young people were not going to be turned around, nor were they likely to stop once they won their first localized victory." They didn't. Several of the Nashville "sit-in kids," as they were called, later risked their lives in Freedom Rides and went on to became civil-rights leaders.

Thirty-eight years later the Pulitzer prize-winning author documents in detail what has happened since to the protesters. Some continued with careers in medicine, education or politics. (Among their ranks were future Congressman John Lewis and Marion Barry, who metamorphosed from activist to mayor of Washington and, as Halberstam writes, "a figure of shame to many people who had first rallied around him.") Their years in the long fight for civil rights had affected all of them.

Although Halberstam's narrative is frequently disjointed as he shifts his focus from individual portraits to the larger political scene, this is a remarkable and rewarding testament to the bravery and idealism of people who forever changed relations between blacks and whites in America. (Random House, $29.95)

by Paul Garrison

Page-Turner of the Week

IN THEIR 38-FOOT CUTTER, PHYSICIANS Michael and Sarah Stone and their daughter Ronnie live an idyllic existence, bringing welcome healing skills to the small islands of the sundrenched Pacific. But when Ronnie and Sarah are kidnapped after boarding a hulking 50,000-ton natural-gas tanker, the Dallas Belle, life becomes a nightmare in paradise. The tanker owner, known as Mr. Jack, needs a doctor to tend his wounds as he plots revenge against his World War II foes. And Michael can't radio the proper authorities for help because his own past is scarred with crime. He must chase the tanker alone over the vastness of the Pacific in a heroic effort to get his wife and daughter back.

First-time novelist Paul Garrison, a third-generation sailor, captains a fine crew of believable characters, including the sea itself. He infuses every act, from raising a spinnaker to witnessing a Shanghai execution, with heart-stopping suspense and a master storyteller's gift. One of the best thrillers to steam into view for some time, it makes readers want to navigate through Fire and Ice in a single sitting. (Avon, $15.95)

>Sara Wheeler

A WOMAN IN FROM THE COLD

IN 1991, WHEN SARA WHEELER BRIEFLY visited the frozen, southernmost continent while writing her last book, a lively survey of Chile, she hit upon an extremely cool idea for her next—Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica (Random House, $25). "I looked over this enormous white desert," she says, "and I thought, 'God, this is the perfect blank sheet for the travel writer.' "

An Oxford graduate, Wheeler, 36, spent two years coldly calculating her return to the bottom of the world. She steeped herself in the literature of the great Antarctic explorers and took survival courses on "everything from what to do when your radio fails to how to build an igloo." Finally she set off on a five-month tour, including stays at the South Pole and the Ross Ice Shelf. Alas, nothing prepared Wheeler for the reality of -44°F weather and endless daylight. "Antarctica teaches you a sense of your own insignificance," she says. "And that's very liberating."

Less liberating was her reception at the all-male British scientific base. "I found 40 men who didn't want women around," she says, "because it spoiled their boys' games." In the end, though, none of the challenges faced by Wheeler—who lives in London with her Canadian boyfriend, Peter Graham, and their 6-month-old son, Wilfred—compared with her most recent adventure: Having a first baby, she says, "is the most foreign territory of them all."

  • Contributors:
  • David Lehman,
  • Erica Sanders,
  • Thomas Fields-Meyer,
  • Michael Rosenthal,
  • Laura Jamison,
  • Emily Mitchell,
  • J.D. Reed,
  • Nina Biddle.