By Alice Hoffman (Crown Publishing, 270 pages, $25)

Prolific novelist Alice Hoffman's affection for magical realism is in full bloom in "The Red Garden," a deeply imaginative and compulsively readable novel with more characters than a 19th-century Russian classic. She tells the stories of multiple generations of residents of the fictional small town of Blackwell, Mass., starting from the winter that a few settlers barely survived after arriving there to the tangle that is modern times. Each chapter could stand as a short story, but all are linked by related characters and a shared landscape and mythology. In almost every chapter we encounter mysterious strangers, lost children, bears, ghosts and love that seems to come out of nowhere, as well as the garden of the title, where everything planted comes up red (even green beans) and now and again an odd bone rises to the surface. Eighteenth-century character Hallie Brady sets the tone for the town she founds and the book she opens with her uncommon courage and strong sense that life is full of surprises worth seeking: "Hallie felt enchanted. She felt as though anything could happen." Quite so, the reader will say at book's end. (One quibble -- a book this fine should not be marred by so many grammatical and spelling errors; Crown Publishing needs to do better on the next edition.)PAMELA MILLER, Night metro editor


By Cara Chow (Egmont Books, 309 pages, $16.99, ages 12 and up)

In the wake of Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" -- her memoir about raising children "the Chinese way," with endless homework and advanced classes, overseen by a screaming and tyrannical mother -- we now have the child's point of view: "Bitter Melon," a young-adult novel by Chinese-American writer Cara Chow. Frances is being raised by her steely, single-minded mother, who is determined that her daughter will attend Berkeley and become a doctor. Nothing is allowed to distract her from that goal, and Frances has never been outside of their San Francisco neighborhood, has never used an ATM card, is not allowed to talk to boys. Until her senior year of high school, Frances has bowed to her mother's will. But that fall she is accidentally placed in a speech class, where she finds rapport with the teacher and a new love of public speaking. Frances is supposed to be studying calculus and attending after-school classes that will help raise her SAT scores. Instead, she is sneaking around to speech competitions and worrying about how to conceal the showy trophies that she wins. In this coming-of-age tale, Chow has done a wonderful job of opening up the world of Chinese-Americans to the reader. Frances' cousin Theresa and aunt Nellie are a nice counterpoint to Frances and her mother -- just as traditional, but more reasonable, with a little more flexibility. At first, Frances relies on Theresa to help shield her rebellious behavior. But when push comes to shove, Theresa backs away, and Frances is left to see if she can stand on her own.LAURIE HERTZEL, Books editor