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Stories that compel, or come apart

An honest fictional voice is intangible, impossible to describe. But readers know when they encounter one. As a friend used to say, ''They can't fool me. I can read." While Nancy Zafris's ''Lucky Strike" and Connie Briscoe's ''Can't Get Enough" couldn't be more dissimilar, both have undeniably authentic narrative voices. Lorna Landvik's ''Oh My Stars," meanwhile, strives to be real and folksy but comes up short.

''Lucky Strike," Zafris's second novel, is set in 1954 in the Utah desert, where thousands of prospectors are looking for uranium. Many are naïve amateurs infected with uranium fever after reading government literature that makes striking it rich sound easy. ''Pick up a rock. If it ticks, you're rich," one pamphlet promises.

Jean Waterman, a young widow, has driven her Rambler from Dayton, Ohio, not to prospect, but to provide a memorable trip for her seriously ill 12-year-old son Charlie. Jean thinks of the trip as ''Charlie's Adventure." It's Beth's adventure too. Charlie's sharp-eyed 10-year-old sister has read all the books she brought with her (''Coal Camp Girl," ''Houseboat Girl," etc.) and has started writing her own, ''Uranium Girl." Zafris tells her story, in part, from Beth's point of view.

Jean and her children fall in with an assortment of odd and complex characters, none of them quite what he or she seems. All their lives are touched, to one degree or another, by uranium fever. Zafris's dry sense of humor runs through the story, a counterpoint to the poignancy of Charlie's illness, the desperation of the uranium seekers, and the not-yet-understood danger of radiation poisoning. The sinister, thrilling mushroom cloud of the bomb casts its shadow over everything. ''Lucky Strike" is a quirky novel that rewards careful reading.

''Can't Get Enough" is the sequel to ''P. G. County," Briscoe's popular sex 'n' shopping novel about life in Silver Lake, an upscale African-American enclave in Prince George County, Md., near Washington, D.C. Briscoe brings a satirical ''Desperate Housewives"-style edge to a subject readers truly can't get enough of -- rich people behaving badly.

Most of the characters from ''P. G. County" are back. Wealthy Barbara Bentley, newly sober and weary of her husband, Bradford's, endless infidelities, is taking a special interest in a handsome young man in her real estate office. And a new neighbor is moving into a chateau-style mansion on Peacock Lane. Its owner is the Baroness Veronique Odette Valentine de Marjolais, whose elegant style of living outshines those of even the wealthiest residents of Silver Lake. Barbara is surprised to learn that the baroness is an old acquaintance of Bradford's, who knew her when she was Veronica Butler of Atlanta, before she married a French nobleman. But just how well did Bradford know her?

''Can't Get Enough" doesn't pretend to be anything more than what it is, escapist reading. Briscoe knows her milieu, and she knows how to entertain her readers.

Young Violet Mathers of Mount Crawford, Ky., endures a plague of hardships in the first 36 pages of Lorna Landvik's relentlessly melodramatic sixth novel, ''Oh My Stars." Her mother abandons her. Her drunken father mistreats her. Her classmates taunt her because she's tall and skinny and has a big chin. On her 16th birthday a factory machine amputates most of her left arm. The accident also leaves Violet with a constant buzzing in her ears, like a swarm of bees. Her dream of becoming a famous clothing designer must die, or so it would seem to those who have never read anything by Landvik, known for uplifting, inspiring, warm-hearted bestsellers in which women triumph over the worst life has to offer (''Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons," etc.).

''Oh My Stars" is set in the mid-1930s, during the Great Depression. Violet leaves Mount Crawford on a bus, bound for San Francisco, determined to be the second person to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. Of course she doesn't jump or the story would end on page 48, instead of going on and on and on. After the bus crashes into a tree outside Pearl, N.D., Violet is taken in by a kindly couple, a Lutheran pastor and his wife. She falls hard for their handsome son Kjel, who looks ''like Gary Cooper, only prettier." Kjel is a talented musician-singer-songwriter, a kind of proto-Elvis who plays a new style of blues with his friend Austin, who, in the language of the day, is a Negro.

The two form a trio with Austin's brother Dallas, fresh from prison. Violet struggles with her racist prejudices and becomes their manager, traveling with the Pearltones throughout the Midwest, where they are a big success. Violet adds blessing after blessing to her ''Why I'm Glad I Didn't Kill Myself" list, but she must endure more tragedy before this novel staggers on to its happy ending.

''Oh My Stars" is a needy novel. It practically sits up and begs readers to love it in spite of its faults -- its phony folksy voice, stereotypical characters, and a plot that stretches suspension of disbelief past the breaking point. Maybe it's meant to be a fairy tale for grown-up readers, or magic realism as practiced in Minnesota, where the author lives. Perhaps it's just a harmless tear-jerker. Whatever it may be, it's not a good novel, or even a good bad novel.

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

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