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It's time to start planning holiday fu

November and December are upon us, with their busy times: planning Thanksgiving dinner, choosing holiday cards and poring over catalogs to decide about a present for Cousin Hilda. Whether part of a family or on your own, plan early so you don't miss out on the seasonal celebrations of your choice.

Always a delightful festivity is the Madrigal Dinner presented by Eckerd College, this year on Dec. 4, 5 and 6, at the Museum of Fine Arts in downtown St. Petersburg. The reception will begin at 6:15 and dinner at 7 p.m. Great food, gorgeous Christmas music and friendly people. Cost is $32.50 for Thursday and $45 for Friday and Saturday. These tickets go fast, so act now or you'll be disappointed. Call 864-8297 for more information.

To give yourself a break and enjoy the weather, consider the 17th Annual Art Arbor Festival at Boyd Hill Nature Park, 1101 Country Club Way S in St. Petersburg, on Nov. 15 and 16. This weekend event should have something for every family member. A reptile show, quality art and crafts from around the state, and a lively lineup of musicians, along with a food court, all take place under the beautiful oaks and pines in the picnic area. Presented by the Friends of Boyd Hill Nature Park, this festival is its only fund-raising activity. Admission, $2 for adults and $1 for children, covers access to the entire park all day. For information, call the park at 893-7326 or Friends' president Lum Pennington at 866-3163.

Just going to a craft show can be frustrating sometimes. I'm often curious about how these amazing effects are achieved. At the Pioneer Florida Museum Craft Day, held on the second Sunday of each month (next one: Nov. 9), visitors can watch craft experts spin, cane chairs, make baskets, do tatting, quilt and weave using traditional techniques and materials just as the pioneers did. It's open from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for those 55 and older, and $2 for students ages 6-18. Call the Pioneer Florida Museum at (352) 567-0262 for more information. It is 1 mile north of Dade City, off U.S. 301, on Pioneer Museum Road.

The last few months have certainly been rich in good books. For serious readers who like challenging and absorbing fiction, Don De Lillo's Underworld is hard to top. Starting with the Giants-Dodgers playoff game at the Polo Grounds in 1951 and coming, in a back-and-forth manner, up to the 1990s, Underworld is a big novel in every sense of the word, covering the Cold War, art, politics, baseball and the waste products business. Marvelous.

We mystery fans have been blessed with repeats by some of our favorite writers. Four of them have put a twist on their latest effort, with varying degrees of success.

Elizabeth George, the American, has a lock on long, British mystery-romance novels. She has produced eight successful volumes whose main characters are an aristocrat, Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley (shades of Lord Peter Wimsey); a pale and interesting crippled pathologist, Simon St. James, married to his butler's daughter, and a working-class female police sergeant, Barbara Havers.

Full of interesting, neurotic people, enough sexual tension to hold the reader's attention and a complex crime to solve, her books manage to skirt melodrama and soap-opera histrionics. Her latest, Deception on His Mind, might not be a good one to begin with if you are not already a fan, since Barbara Havers is on her own and out of London, dealing with the Pakistani community in a run-down English seaside resort. I missed Lynley, St. James and their interchange with the feisty sergeant.

Patricia Cornwell also tries something different with Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the Richmond, Va., medical examiner, in her latest novel Unnatural Exposure. First-person mystery novels are always tricky. Although she has had many hits, Cornwell came close to boring me off the page this time. If you think you would be interested in the character, go back to Cornwell's early Scarpetta, Cause of Death and From Potter's Field. In Unnatural Exposure, there's sickening violence, confusing computer talk and a villain too absent from most of the story.

Robert Parker, author of more than 20 detective stories set in and around Boston starring Spenser, Susan and his sidekick Hawk, has given them a rest and moved to a new main character. Jesse Stone is an unhappily divorced loner, fired from the Los Angeles police force because of a serious drinking problem. He gets a job as chief of police in small-town Paradise, Mass. (Parker isn't noted for his subtlety.) The crooks who run the town think they can control him, but we know better. Good Robert Parker fare, and if you like Spenser, Jesse will become a favorite.

And what would we do without our yearly fix of Dick Francis? He has the first-person technique down pat, his heroes are more alike than different _ modest, accomplished, brave, good sense of humor and very British _ and the mysteries are always intriguing and ultimately quite informative. I've learned about the English betting system, British race-track procedures, (all the Francis books have at least a subplot having to do with horses, jockeys, racing) as well as architecture, painting, wine-marketing and insurance scams. This time, we are in the thick of English parliamentary elections. Light reading, but he always delivers what he promises.

Take note.

_ You can write to Mim Anne Houk c/o Seniority, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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