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CARACOL BEACH, by Eliseo Alberto, translated by Edith Grossman (Knopf, $25)

It's a warm summer night in the small Florida town of Caracol Beach, a fictitious backwater burg full of Caribbean immigrants, sweethearts and low-lifes. Down by the auto salvage yard, Beto Milanes, a mentally disturbed Cuban veteran of the war in Angola, carries the names of his seven dead comrades tattooed on his arm. When the vet and a group of partying teenagers intersect, the plot of Caracol Beach, the winner of Spain's prestigious Alfaguara Prize in Fiction, is ready to hit the fan.

The Cuban-born Alberto writes that "Cuba was a piano that someone played behind the horizon," but his Caracol Beach is a polyphonic jazz of characters _ Haitian barflies, a nostalgic Puerto Rican constable and his transvestite son, a gay Armenian, and All-American teenagers, in addition to ghosts and a narrator who foretells the deaths and destruction.

Alberto, who has adapted several stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the screen, shows the master's influence in his fluid prose, and startling descriptions of the mad internal lives of his characters. Alberto's orthodox version of magic realism, torqued by its Florida setting, astonishes from start to finish.


by Manlio Argueta, translated by Michael B. Miller (Curbstone Press, $14.95)

Manlio Argueta is a member of Salvador's lost generation _ a writer forced to flee the country by the civil war of the 1970s and '80s and the Salvadoran government's outright ban on his books. In A Place Called Milagro de la Paz, Argueta tells a sly political parable of one family's struggle against fear and ignorance against a backdrop of a small Central American town.

Led by Latina, a dignified single mother struggling to raise her two daughters in the midst of poverty and repression, the novel carefully portrays a handful of characters living between the shadows of "the unknown men," vigilantes who terrorize the night, and government soldiers. When Latina's oldest daughter is murdered, she and her surviving daughter must carry on together.

Argueta is a popular novelist throughout Central America, and it is easy to see why. A Place Called Milagro de la Paz, (the title means "miracle of peace") draws on traditional folklore to tell a vivid, human story. With Salvadoran imagery providing a richness of place, A Place Called Milagrode la Paz charms like a fairy tale, but has the moral force of an indictment.

THE WILD NUMBERS By Philibert Schogt

Four Walls Eight Windows, $18

"In mathematics," writes Philibert Schogt, "either you get it or you don't." Even math-phobes will appreciate Dutch author Schogt's hilarious tale of one mathematician's academic rivalries and addle-brained romance.

When the depressed Professor Isaac Swift solves the famously difficult "Wild Number" problem, he is accused by a crackpot, middle-aged student of plagiarism and his world turns upside down.

Behind the talk of "prime number pairs" and "the Goldbach conjecture" is a hilarious send up of petty academic maneuvering and a man driven to distraction by his own brain power. While the race for academic credit and mathematical fame proceeds, Schogt illuminates the passion for numbers and theories that drives mathematicians over the line between genius and madness.

This slender novel does a good job illuminating for the uninitiated the poetry of pure mathematics. And give first-time author Schogt extra-credit: He wrote The Wild Numbers in English, his second language.

LETTER TO LORENZO, by Amanda Prantera (Bloomsbury, $24.95)

The time is the early '70s in Rome. Juliette and Lorenzo are young, attractive, wealthy, and like many of their friends, Communists. Then Lorenzo is killed by a car bomb. Under the dual pressures of a police inspector and a domineering mother-in-law, Juliette must piece her life back together.

Prantera, an Englishwoman and long-time resident of Italy, has written an engaging first-person account of loss and life in her adopted country. Letter to Lorenzo, just out in paperback, starts with a bang and does not let up. En route, Prantera animates finely drawn sketches of the political nature of Italian life. Chatty, intimate and resourceful, Prantera's Juliette narrates a convincing police procedural without resorting to cliches of the genre.

Was it the Red Brigades who wanted her bourgeois husband dead? Or did the neo-fascists plant the bomb? Did Lorenzo commit suicide? Even the grieving widow is a suspect. This stylish page-turner keeps readers guessing until its slap-your-head ending.

Philip is a writer who lives in New York City.