LIKE A HOLE IN THE HEAD. By Jen Banbury (Little, Brown: 296 pp., $21.95)
Jen Banbury, a former AT&T; spokesmodel, drives this Generation-X noir thriller like a danger-happy teenager on a joy ride. Her heroine is the smart-alecky yet winsome Jill, a slacker whose chief responsibilities are keeping the pantry stocked with Cap'n Crunch and ringing up paperbacks at a used bookstore. When a suspicious-looking dwarf comes in to unload a handsome first edition of Jack London's "The Cruise of the Snark," all hell breaks loose, and Jill is forced to take control of herself and the impossible situation that has sprung up around her. But even as Jill finds herself in a life-threatening cross-fire among unsavory parties vying for the ultra-rare, six-figure volume, she refuses to become a boring adult. During one abduction, she's asked what kind of films she likes. "Kidnapping flicks" is the answer. Jill's taste in sarcasm and malt liquor keep her, and the book, going; Jack London would have admired her survival instincts, and he'd recognize Banbury's L.A. as an untameable wilderness.
THE ODD SEA. By Frederick Reiken (Harcourt Brace: 202 pp., $22)
In this remarkable novel, which has the sharp emotional focus of a finely tuned short story, the Shumway family copes with the ultimate nightmare: 16-year-old Ethan, the oldest son, has vanished without a trace. His brother Phillip observes a household going awry--a mother who stays up all night baking muffins and reading "Middlemarch"; a father increasingly obsessed with antique chisels; and three sisters getting fed up with each other. The disappearance--variously attributed to a serial killer, a mountain lion and journeys to Oregon and Arles--only increases Phillip's awe for Ethan, a talented skier and budding musician who loved Van Gogh as much as Van Halen, and who found himself drawn to two very different lovers. Phillip's passions are simpler; he likes bird-watching and working at the Old Creamery Grocery, but he's consumed by the unfathomable complexities--"the odd sea"--of Ethan's vanishing. Like the Massachusetts hills into which Ethan disappears, this book is seductive yet forbidding, as Phillip learns the wrenching lesson that what is "most beautiful is usually that which brings us back to what is absent."
THE COCKFIGHTER. By Frank Manley (Coffee House Press: 206 pp., $19.95)
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.
NIKE. By Nicholas Flokos (Houghton Mifflin: 180 pp., $20)
The inhabitants of the Greek isle of Samothrace have never quite gotten over the loss of Nike, the statue of Winged Victory that once gazed triumphantly toward Troy but now stands headless in the Louvre. Luckless in love and given to poetry, 40ish Photi Anthropotis is particularly affected by the missing Nike. As a boy, he earned the nickname glypholept (statue lover) for sleeping with a chunk of marble he believed to be Nike's brow. Now, he's the keeper of Nike's sanctuary, an underwhelming, statueless site that "looks less like a shrine abandoned than a flown coop." Still, it's enough to inspire Photi to vows of epanapatrismos--repatriation. The ensuing quest to sneak Nike out of the Louvre turns into a bumbling odyssey that sends Photi to Paris twice and gets him mixed up with a sassy female museum guard, a dominatrix-like director of PBS documentaries, and a pompous French acteur portraying Champoiseau, the 19th-century plunderer who stole Nike in the first place. Flokos tells Photi's hard-luck tale with the measured strophes of a Greek chorus and with jokes that glisten like shards of marble.
DEGREES OF LOVE. By Rachel Basch (W.W. Norton: 282 pp., $23.95)
"Act like you have nothing to hide." This jinxing bit of advice is offered to Lily Sterne and her husband, Jack Keliher, by a hospital worker prepping them for an interview with the Department of Social Services. Since the day their baby, Katie, was accidentally, yet severely, scalded by a pot of boiling water, Lily and Jack have been forced to plead their case as worthy parents to the state, to their families and to themselves. Basch gets the corrosiveness of second-guessing just right, as Lily is compelled by circumstance into distracted self-examination and flippancy at the worst possible time. (The interview--a warm-and-fuzzy version of the Spanish Inquisition--does not go terribly well.) Soon enough, Lily and Jack find themselves in an all-out battle to maintain custody of Katie, while smaller skirmishes begin to rage around them: Their son, Benjamin, goes from sullen to self-destructive, wading into traffic outside a shopping mall; the phone rings off the hook with crank calls; the family priest, with forced humility, is busy not taking credit for Katie's "miraculous" recovery; and Jack cannot bring himself to pardon Lily for her role in the accident. Basch transforms a subject too often relegated to Saturday night TV into an unforgettable drama.