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Short Takes

The Pirate's Daughter
By Margaret Cezair-Thompson
Unbridled, 394 pp., $24.95

Creole: It's an evocative old term that has fallen out of favor, but it accurately describes the two women, mother and daughter, around whom this ripe romantic novel revolves. And it describes the novel itself, too, a mélange of family saga, love story, and political-historical fiction served up in a tropical setting.

The story begins in 1946, when seafaring matinee idol Errol Flynn washes ashore in Port Antonio, Jamaica. Delighted with this Caribbean paradise, he decides to stay awhile - long enough, at any rate, to seduce and impregnate a local girl of exotically mixed heritage, Ida Joseph. Ida and May, the daughter to whom she gives birth, conceived in glamour and the self-deception of romance, enact a decades-long vexed relationship with each other, with love and longing, with the conundrums of racial identity, and with their beautiful, troubled island home.

"The Pirate's Daughter" covers a vast swath of narrative territory with page-turning panache, despite the occasional perfunctory bump where the real and the invented collide. Although it is the women's story, its sharpest-drawn character is Flynn, a charming monster of narcissistic entitlement. Biographical fact demands an early exit (Flynn died in 1959), but his star power lingers, haunting the tale like a duppy, the folkloric ghost said to roam his picturesque Jamaican estate.

Life's a Campaign
By Chris Matthews
Random House, 224 pp., $24.95

Not one to hide his light, political pundit Chris Matthews - ringmaster, as he reminds us repeatedly, of "Hardball With Chris Matthews" and "The Chris Matthews Show" - has been clawing his way up the Washington ladder ever since the early 1970s, when he first hustled himself into a legislative-assistant job in Congress. He wrote speeches for Jimmy Carter and worked for the immortal Tip O'Neill before joining the chattering class.

In short, he has been studying political power, how it is gained and how it is wielded, for nearly 40 years. This book, subtitled "What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation, and Success," offers anecdotes about the Machiavellian maneuverings of congressmen and presidents as hooks on which to hang generalized advice to the ambitious, like "Relish the contest," "Express yourself," and "Listen," this last a surprise to anyone familiar with Matthews's motormouth TV shtick.

Matthews's self-satisfaction is a force of nature. The anecdotes serve mainly to advertise his presence in the halls of power. Why he decided to cast a Washington memoir as a "How to Succeed" manual is puzzling. The vast majority of Americans don't equate success in government with "real" success, and those few who do care about politics will cringe at his principle-free criteria.

Super America: Stories
By Anne Panning
University of Georgia, 232 pp., $24.95

Family dynamics in all their messy complexity set a wealth of material before the gimlet eye of Anne Panning. This collection of short stories begins and ends with narratives in which sons serve as helpless witnesses to the smash-up of their parents' marriages. In the title story, a college student catching a ride home with his ne'er-do-well father is disgusted to find his old man still throwing himself into the same absurd and manic stunts that got him tossed from the family home. And in the novella-length "Freeze," a sensitive teenager confides in us about the accident and its aftermath that have changed everything and nothing in his parents' crumbling relationship.

Panning writes with intelligence and humor, as well as a grasp of craft justly acknowledged here with the imprimatur of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. In "Cravings," after a pretty young woman at loose ends moves in with her older, plainer, and seemingly more neurotic sister, we gradually discover that we have lent our sympathies to the wrong sibling owing to Panning's elegant deployment of that tricky device, the unreliable narrator.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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