New books take you to Nova Scotia, the Alps, rural China, and the heart of darkness — without having to pack a bag.


CAPE BRETON ROAD
BY D.R. MACDONALD, HARCOURT, $23


Anyone who remembers what it was like to be young and restless, jobless, carless, and loveless will ache for the protagonist of this beautiful and taut novel. At age 19, Innis Corbett has been deported from suburban Boston, where he grew up, to harshly beautiful Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where he was born, because he can’t keep his hands off other people’s cars.

He lands with his hard-nosed, hard-drinking bachelor uncle, Starr. Though the two seem to get along, Innis plots his escape, to be financed by the marijuana plants he tenderly cultivates in the attic. Then a beautiful woman moves into the house and destroys the equilibrium.

It’s a formula for either comedy or tragedy, and it’s uncertain for a time which way this story will go. Deep family roots and the physical beauty of the place work at Innis, toughening his muscles and his mind. But so does temptation, in a luxurious Cadillac garaged nearby, and in his uncle’s girlfriend, the attractive Claire.

MacDonald earned critical acclaim for his 1988 story collection, Eyestone. It’s easy to see why. His descriptions are stunning, and he ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels as expertly as any mystery writer. This one’s a heartbreaker.


KILLING DRAGONS
BY FERGUS FLEMING, ATLANTIC MONTHLY, $26


Before the current fascination with mountains and mountaineering, there was another rush to the hills. In the mid-19th century, the Alps, once considered the domain of witches and dragons, became objects of artistic inspiration, then goals for mountaineers to conquer.

In Killing Dragons, Fergus Fleming does a skillful job on both the romantic obsession with the mountains and the urge to climb them. John Ruskin, the seminal art critic of the age, “inspired people to think of mountains in semi-religious, transcendent terms.” Writers, painters, and composers came to the Alps for inspiration.

Climbers arrived to conquer instead, and their tales are all here, including the most famous catastrophe in mountaineering — at least until the Everest tragedy documented in Into Thin Air. On July 14, 1865, Edward Whymper became the first climber to reach the summit of the Matterhorn, the grail of mountaineering. But on the climb down, one of the seven men in his party fell and dragged others down with him. They were roped, but when Whymper and two others attempted a belay, the rope broke and four men perished. For months, this accident was the talk — the scandal — of Europe.This story has been written many times, but never in such full context and with such intelligent polish as Fleming manages in this wonderful literary adventure. — G.N.