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Dark fantasy writer Engstrom (Black Leather) starts on familiar ground, but rapidly turns this "novel in stories" into a genre-blending exploration of love, aging, grief and sacrifice. In Vargas County, children under 12 occasionally vanish, but the locals have long viewed this as a tithe taken by the town in exchange for the happiness of the other residents. This theme is explored directly in stories like "House Odds," in which real estate agent Julia has to decide if her grandchildren would be in greater danger in town or away with their drunken father. Other tales merely use the disappearances as a backdrop, such as "Skytouch Fever," in which aging Sadie Katherine is forced to choose between her steadfast beau and a rakish visitor, and the wittily ironic thriller "One Quiet Evening in the Wax Museum." Fast-paced, melancholy and beautiful, the overarching narrative binds a collection of good stories into a superb if unconventional novel. (Aug.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.