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IT'S PREPOSTEROUS, BUT A LOT OF FUN

Clive Cussler's new action thriller reaches fresh heights of preposterousness. Consider: To foil plans by Japanese villains for a world takeover, Cussler's red-white-and-blue hero Dirk Pitt, single-handedly places and detonates an atomic bomb on the Pacific floor, literally sinking the island where the conspirators are headquartered.

Though absurdly outsize, such a performance is merely in character for the Cussler/Pitt duo who, in earlier adventures, disguised ships as icebergs to outwit spy satellites ("Treasure"), performed the nautically impossible ("Raise the Titanic!"), and had rogue scientists operating an undetected moon base ("Cyclops").

In "Dragon," set in 1993, the indestructible Pitt -- a combo of James Bond, Doc Savage, and Superman -- battles Suma, an evil genius bent on conquering America economically and guaranteeing Japanese market supremacy through nuclear blackmail. (To avoid charges of Japan-bashing, it's made clear that Suma is acting privately and secretly, without the knowledge of the Tokyo government.)

Cussler's wild and wooly narratives -- plots, characters, dialogue -- read like lurid comic books. They're as overlong and turgid as Robert Ludlum's "big read" thrillers, but happily avoid the latter's chaos and dishevelment. And where Ludlum often takes himself seriously, clever Cussler keeps tongue firmly in cheek.

Greeley, in short

ALL ABOUT WOMEN
By Andrew M. Greeley
Tor
372 pages; $12.95

Uncertainty -- about identity, motive, outcome -- is intrinsic to suspense. Which is why this collection of priest-sociologist-author Andrew M. Greeley's short stories is within this column's purview.

For many of the 23 entries in "All About Women" turn on situations, characters or events involving ambiguity, chance, the unsure or the speculative, all with subtle shadings of uncertainty.

For example, in "Andrea," the best of the lot, who is the enigmatic young woman accompanying the recently discharged World War II Navy fighter pilot through Arizona's lonely ghost towns? Is she actually a war widow on her way to a job? Or a demon-driven lady convinced she has been damned? Or, even more basic, does she exist in reality or only in the desire-inflamed imagination of the ex-GI? We're never sure.

As in some of his novels, Greeley's short stories are uneven. Some are clever in concept but weak and superficial in execution. But others, like "Andrea," are thoughtfully imaginative, haunting and related with a quiet power.

FOR YOUNG READERS

Insects: Alfred A. Knopf, $13.95 -- A wealth of information history, classification and lifestyles of insects is crammed onto every page, with digestible and interesting nuggets of text laced with excellent photographs and drawings. For example, a single page has a giant photo of a beetle in pieces, all nicely labeled, and a diagram of the internal anatomy of a worker bee. Another fine book in Knopf's excellent Eyewitness Book sies.

Young Merlin, by Robert D. San Souci, illustrated by Daniel Horne; Doubleday, $13.95 -- A master storyteller offers a fascinating retelling of one of the legends of the wizard Merlin's childhood, this one concluding with Merlin inventing Stonehenge as a memorial to the slain Aurelius, Arthur's uncle. The lush paintings are almost too rich, in vivid hues of red, orange and purple. -- Jean Westmoore

Paperbacks

The Man Who Shot Lewis Vance and Down for the Count, by Stuart M. Kaminksy; Mysterious Press, $4.50 each -- PI Toby Peters encounters film star John Wayne and boxing great Joe Louis while solving mysteries.

Territory of Lies, by Wolf Blitzer; Harper, $4.95 -- Inside story of Jonathan Jay Pollard, Israel's "All-American spy."

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving; Ballantine, $5.95 -- Comic novel starring New Hampshire granite quarrier's son who believes he's God instrument. -- Ed Kelly