by Brenda Maddox

When Frieda Weekley, the 32-year-old wife of a British linguistics professor, took D.H. Lawrence to bed within 20 minutes of their first meeting, she introduced him to a torrent of sexual politics and possibilities that infused his writings and rattled the world for years to come. Maddox, author of an award-winning 1989 biography of Nora Joyce, wife of James, focuses on the intimacies of their affair and eventual marriage to show how the son of a coal miner became one of the most important and controversial writers of the century.

Free-speaking and worldly, Frieda enjoyed the intellectual and bohemian lifestyle that flourished in Europe in the early 1900s, and soon became more than Lawrence's wife. She became his muse, but the relationship was not without problems. Skillfully interpreting biographical references in his writings and drawing upon diaries, personal accounts and previously unpublished letters, Maddox portrays Lawrence in all his complexity. The self-proclaimed "priest of love," who wrote Sons and Lovers, Women in Love and Lady Chatterley's Lover, craved more from life than could ever be delivered. The longing racked his soul and brought bitter jealousy and viciousness into his marriage. Maddox wisely balances these moments with images of the couple's happiness—traveling, reading Italian, even comparing needlework—to reveal their deep, if sometimes uneasy, need for one another.

If Lawrence is sometimes dismissed nowadays as a flagrant misogynist, a pornographer, a racist, even a repressed homosexual, Maddox offers a compelling perspective that should earn him a new generation of readers. Her sympathetic portrait shows Lawrence as a man struggling with the angels and demons of his psyche, a conflict that was both eased and exacerbated by his wife. (Simon & Schuster, $30)

by Orville Schell

If the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia were not enough to get Marx, Engels and Lenin spinning in their graves, then what is happening in China today most certainly will. Mandate of Heaven, Orville Schell's fascinating portrait of contemporary Chinese society, presents a strangely comic picture of a country in the midst of economic reforms that makes the United States seem almost socialist in comparison.

Drawing upon personal experiences and interviews with dissidents, rock stars and exiles, Schell carefully reconstructs the events surrounding the pro-democracy demonstration and massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989. He shows how, in the clamp-down that followed, China's leaders, especially Deng Xiaoping, lured people away from politics with the promise of material goods. Schell's writing is consistently vivid and intelligent, and his conclusions are important. The current economic frenzy has made it impossible for China to integrate environmental, cultural and moral issues, leaving Schell to wonder if another revolution is imminent, triggered this time by economics rather than politics. (Simon & Schuster, $25)

by Jeff Noon

Englishman Noon, a former punk musician, has written a searing and surreal first novel. Reality and technology take on a slippery, hallucinatory quality in this arresting sci-fi vision of near-future Manchester. Maybe that's because everyone except the cops is stoned on Vurt. Part drug, part software, Vurt is the gateway to a dangerous, Dali-esque virtual playhouse. It comes in the form of color-coded feathers with names like Talking Bush, Honey Suckers and English Voodoo. Each brand, when tickled against the pharynx, ushers you into a discrete transcendental state. The story is told by Scribble, a druggie who is engaged in an Orpheus-like search for his sister (and lover), who entered one of Vurt's vast virtual arenas and never emerged.

The language throughout contains the most poetic street vernacular since Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. (Bionic thugs are called robogoths. A movie theater is a shimmy.) In fact, Vurt's only significant flaw is that its reach far exceeds its plot. After creating such an original and transporting atmosphere, Noon isn't quite sure what to do with it. But he has written a memorable book, one that manages to make the virtual almost palpable. (Crown, $22)

by Anita Brookner

George Bland has spent a lifetime living up to his name. Wanting nothing more than to put as much distance as possible between himself and his embattled working-class youth, the London bachelor has embraced the kind of bourgeois security many would find stifling. For decades Bland's orderly world has revolved around the office; the Sunday phone chats with Louise, his by now all-but-platonic mistress; and, most important, his friendship with his colleague Putnam, with whom he has spent countless lunches planning a postretirement trip to the Far East. But on the brink of their adventure, Putnam dies. And so, at 65, Bland finds himself with loads of time, lots of money—thanks to Putnam's will—and no one to enjoy them with.

Enter Katy. Half Bland's age and hungry for investors in the New Age therapy business, Katy is his radical opposite—yet unaccountably fascinating to him. As Bland begins to wrestle with the fantasies Katy arouses, he, like the solitaries in 12 previous Brookner novels, is forced to confront some hard truths about his hermetic existence.

Brookner is on familiar ground here, painting on an even tinier canvas than usual. Yet, master miniaturist that she is, her sure strokes make for a picture that lingers. (Random House, $23)

by Geoffrey Wolff

Nestled "neath the balsams and within earshot of loons," the community of Blackberry Mountain—where the adults are aging hipsters, politics are progressive, and communing with nature builds character—is Eden on earth. Or so young Ted Jenks thinks of his hometown in New York State's Adirondacks—until Maisie, his beautiful, plucky 15-year-old sister, pauses at the top of a waterfall, strips before family and friends and plunges headfirst into a shallow rock pool.

That inexplicable act sends the ground rumbling beneath the Jenks family; no sooner do they gather around Maisie's hospital bed than they crack and fall apart, stirring Ted's suspicion "that there was no such thing as a story there wasn't more to." His hunch proves right—for his affable, hapless father and his hard-bitten, practical mother, who separate, and for longtime family friend and mentor Doc Halliday.

Wolff, who cast an unflinching eye at his own famously dysfunctional family in the masterful 1979 memoir The Duke of Deception, skillfully lays bare a world of rueful adults, even children, whose memories are rife with ache and bitterness—a bleak, amoral place where no one can move fast or far enough from harm. When Ted grows up, he finally unravels the mystery of what sent Maisie over the edge and he finds a core of corruption and cold-blooded cruelty—the dark heart of an idyll that never was. (Knopf, $23)

  • Contributors:
  • Thomas Curwen,
  • David Hiltbrand,
  • Pam Lambert,
  • Paula Chin.