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From subtle to strident, novels about big issues

Song of the Cuckoo Bird
By Amulya Malladi
Ballantine, 384 pp., paperback, $13.95

House of Many Gods
By Kiana Davenport
Ballantine, 330 pp., $24.95

Lessons in Duck Hunting
By Jayne Buxton
Ballantine, 336 pp., $22.95

The first two of these three novels deal, in very different ways, with serious social issues. The first succeeds brilliantly, the second doesn't. The third novel takes on another sort of social issue, how to find a man, a subject that also can be very serious, but in this case is hilarious.

Amulya Malladi's captivating fourth novel, ''Song of the Cuckoo Bird," is the story of one woman's life in modern India, reflecting changes in the status of that nation's women over the last 40-odd years.

Kokila, whose name means ''cuckoo," comes to the ashram Tella Meda as an 11-year-old orphan, already promised in marriage. She is meant to stay at the ashram until she reaches puberty, when she will leave to live with her husband and his family. When the time comes, Kokila refuses to go. She thinks she's in love with Vidura, the younger brother of Tella Meda's resident guru. Kokila is too young to understand that in a society that measures a woman's worth in terms of marriage and children, her decision condemns her to a life of poverty and social ostracism.

Tella Meda doesn't conform to certain Western notions of an ashram: a kind of spiritual spa where seekers of knowledge, many of them celebrities, come to find wisdom dispensed by some glamorous guru. It is, instead, a refuge for orphans, widows, abused women, and other outcasts.

The ashram's guru, Charvi, is a young woman when the story opens in 1961. When she was a week old her father, Ramanandam, an intellectual and writer, claimed to recognize the light of God within her and declared her a goddess. He abandoned atheism and installed the little goddess in Tella Meda. There, on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, Charvi receives devotees and petitioners, who contribute money to support the goddess and her ashram.

There are many characters, each with his or her own story. Vidura runs away. Chetana, whose prostitute mother abandoned her as a baby at the ashram, schemes to marry a rich young man. Kokila falls in love with the elderly Ramanandam. Charvi is drawn to an American photographer. Pilgrims and visitors come and go. Lost souls move into the ashram and stay.

Change comes to Tella Meda. Kokila becomes an expert typist and takes a job teaching typing in a school. Chetana's younger daughter graduates from medical school and becomes engaged to a Muslim classmate. Kokila's adopted son studies to become an air force pilot. ''Song of the Cuckoo Bird" is an intelligent, absorbing novel that subtly illustrates social change through the lives of Kokila and the other residents of Tella Meda.

There's nothing subtle about ''House of Many Gods." It's an ambitious, sprawling, emotionally charged novel that addresses a welter of social issues, including racism, cultural imperialism, native Hawaiian rights, munitions testing, the arms race, the nuclear threat, and poverty and corruption in the new Russia. Kiana Davenport obviously has done an enormous amount of research for this novel, her third, and apparently was reluctant to hold back any of it. In the accompanying publicity material Davenport is quoted as saying that there is very little in this book that is pure fiction. That's the trouble. Despite her passionate, evocative writing, ''House of Many Gods" never comes together as a novel.

Ana, a Hawaiian of mixed race, grows up motherless, cared for by a large, poor extended family of damaged men and volatile women on the wild Wai'anae coast on the island of Oahu. Her mother, Anahola, left the island when Ana was 2 and ran off to San Francisco. There she managed to acquire an advanced degree in biochemistry with the encouragement of Max, a renowned immunologist. She becomes his assistant, his lover, and then his wife. As Ana grows up she's tempted by the lawless life on the Wai'anae coast, but decides to get an education, financed by her mother, and becomes an emergency room doctor. She falls in love with Nikolai, a Russian filmmaker who has come to Oahu to make a documentary about secret military arsenals and munitions testing on the island. When he disappears Ana must decide if she can accept her mother's help in finding him. There's a great deal more, way too much, in fact. ''House of Many Gods" could have benefited from some severe editing.

Jayne Buxton's ''Lessons in Duck Hunting" succeeds because it doesn't pretend to be anything more than what it is, literate chick lit. And no, that's not a contradiction in terms. While the genre may be formulaic, the execution can range from cringe inducing to nicely polished. ''Lessons in Duck Hunting" is a shining example of the latter.

Our heroine is no ingenue but a 37-year-old divorced mother of two young children. Ally's job is marketing marmalade, a less glamorous position than her previous one pushing Chanel, but the pay is better and the hours more flexible. In the two years since her divorce she's been on exactly two dates. Meanwhile David, her ex, seems to be involved with a different woman every week.

Ally's best friend, Mel, a magazine writer, asks her to attend a dating seminar, ''The Proactive Partnership Program," which teaches women to apply marketing principles (''Product, Packaging, Place, Promotion") to finding a man. Mel wants to write about the program, plus she thinks Ally needs to get out of her rut. The plot is predictable, but for many readers that's part of the charm of chick lit. Buxton is a funny writer who knows that humor is in the details.

Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.

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