July 21, 2003 12:00 PM

By Leslie Marshall

Journalist Marshall knows the importance of an eye-catching beginning. In the first two chapters of her debut novel, 6-year-old Elray Mayhew survives an electrical accident that kills her parents and is thrust into the care of a footloose photographer, Uncle Harwood, and a cross-dressing uncle who calls himself Auntie Ajax. Despite the carnival atmosphere of El-ray’s kooky clan, Marshall has created a memorable story about survival, love and family. The author’s plotting can be as absurd as her characters (for example, Elray’s grandmother, believed to have died in a fire, turns up alive). Still, this coming-of-age story is a page-turner that will disarm and charm. (Grove, $24)

BOTTOM LINE: Standout talent

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