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Pop Lit

In foreign lands and distant times

By Diane White
Globe Correspondent / November 8, 2009

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In her second novel, Merlinda Bobis writes a bittersweet, beautiful Christmas story about poverty, cruelty, child prostitution, and international terrorism. Veteran romance writer Maeve Haran’s first foray into historical fiction is a polished work of imagination. Bestselling thriller writer Sandra Brown tries a new genre.

Bobis, born in the Philippines and a resident of Australia, is a poet as well as a novelist. Perhaps only a poet could transform the themes of her second novel into something as gorgeous, disturbing, loving, and oddly hopeful as “The Solemn Lantern Maker.’’

Noland, a mute 10-year-old, lives with his disabled mother Nena in a shack in the slums of Manila. Noland makes star-shaped paper lanterns and sells them on the street. His slightly older friend, the street-wise Elvis, helps Noland peddle his lanterns to motorists stuck in traffic. Six nights before Christmas the boys are working cars in a traffic jam, trying to sell lanterns to an American tourist “with golden hair, with a very white face.’’ Noland, who is obsessed with angels, thinks that she must be one, fallen to earth.

A man drives a motorcycle through the crowd and shoots a journalist sitting in his car. The “angel’’ is hit too and collapses in the street. In the confusion, the boys manage to lift the woman into Noland’s cart. They take her home to Nena, who reluctantly nurses her.

Their shack is the poorest in the slum, but inside it’s magical, papered with pictures of angels, stars from magazines and billboards, and Noland’s star lanterns.

Outside, the media speculate about the murder and kidnapping. Terrorists? A religious cult? Noland’s simple act of mercy quickly becomes an international incident. Bobis writes short chapters, from various points of view, which keeps the action moving at a fast pace.

In “The Lady and the Poet,’’ Haran has fashioned a fascinating novel around the scandalous love story of the poet John Donne and the young noblewoman Ann More. The novel, rich in period detail, unfolds in the final years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Little is known of the real Ann, apart from her family background and the fact that she was, as Donne’s biographer Izaak Walton noted, “curiously and plentifully educated.’’

Haran speculates in a postscript that Ann’s education, unusual for the time, may have been the key to their happy union. They were married for 15 years and produced 12 children. Ann died at 33, after giving birth to their 13th child, who was stillborn. Donne wrote some of his best known love poems while they were married.

The fictional Ann, who narrates the story, is an unusually mature, spirited girl of 14 when she meets Donne, nearly twice her age, known for his clever, erotic verses. Ann, reared at the family estate in Surrey, tutored by her grandfather in Latin and Greek, is brought to London, to the house of her uncle, the lord keeper of the great seal.

She is meant to win a position at court with the help of her influential aunt and prepare herself for an arranged marriage to a suitable husband, as her sisters have done. Repelled by the hypocrisy, rivalry, and cruelty of life at court, Ann refuses to pursue a place among Queen Elizabeth’s army of sycophants, infuriating her family. Ann meets Donne, her uncle’s secretary, a witty, worldly, arrogant man, unlike anyone she has known. He has no money or position, his family background is Roman Catholic, a dangerous legacy at the time. Haran imagines a passionate, tempestuous courtship with clandestine meetings, secret letters, go-betweens, and many obstacles and setbacks.

Some setbacks are a matter of record. Donne, thrown into prison for secretly marrying Ann, summed up their situation in a note to his new wife: “John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone.’’ Donne’s love poetry, as thrilling now as it was in his day, is quoted throughout the novel.

Brown’s “Rainwater,’’ is a love story set in a small Texas town at the height of the Depression. After Ella Barron’s husband deserts her she opens a boarding house, a model of efficiency.

But Ella’s scorned woman status, along with the odd behavior of her 10-year-old son, Solly, makes her an object of pity and curiosity among her neighbors. The town doctor brings a distant relative, David Rainwater, to Ella’s boarding house, recommending him as a man of “impeccable character’’ who needs a place to live. He also imparts a secret: Rainwater is dying.

The courtly, handsome Rainwater wins Ella’s heart with his kindness to everyone and his sensitivity to Solly, who, at a time before autism was recognized, has been diagnosed as an “idiot savant.’’

Outside the domestic haven of the boarding house Gilead is on the verge of chaos. People are facing financial ruin, homelessness, starvation. Desperation fuels social unrest and racial hostility. Cattle farmers hoping to hold onto their land reluctantly agree to cooperate with a program that pays them to allow the government to shoot their livestock. When poor people attempt to scavenge some of the carcasses to feed their families, a thuggish, racist meatpacker and his hoodlum cronies terrorize the town.

“Rainwater’’ is a three-hankie tale of doomed love amid social upheaval. It’s brief, and a bit thin, but it has two attractive main characters and enough conflict to satisfy fans of Brown’s thrillers.

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

THE SOLEMN LANTERN MAKER
By Merlinda Bobis
Delta, 272 pp., paperback, $14

THE LADY AND THE POET
By Maeve Haran
St. Martin’s, 400 pp., $25.99

RAINWATER
By Sandra Brown
Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $23.99

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