by Alice Hoffman

Not content to be merely the next Anne Tyler, Hoffman, with this splendidly literate and absorbing reconstruction-of-the-crime novel, would appear to be moving in on Susan Isaacs and Sara Paretsky as well.

The quiet sensibilities of Seventh Heaven (1990), Hoffman's last book, lie galaxies away from the bitter and bloody premises of this novel. Set in a Florida town peopled largely by retirees and divorcees, Turtle Moon relies on a character who might be on the lam from an Elmore Leonard novel. He's Julian Cash, a rugged cop still agonizing over the night, nearly 20 years or so ago, when his teenage reckless driving caused the death of his best friend and cousin, Bobby Cash.

When Julian starts investigating the death of a divorcée and the disappearance of her infant daughter, he gets involved with a neighbor of the deceased, Lucy Rosen. She has a surly 12-year-old son, Keith, an aspiring delinquent in a mouse-studying-to-be-a-weasel kind of way. The boy arouses fraternal if not paternal feelings in Julian and also allows Hoffman to explore—as she does so well—the complexity of the relationships between parents and children. Lucy's abiding devotion to her unlikable and seemingly irredeemable son is mirrored in Julian's mostly warm memories of the woman who raised him after he was orphaned.

Hoffman's prose loses nothing in the genre crossing either, as she shows in this evocation of a Florida morning: "Before there is any light there is the sound of birds. Their song spirals slowly upward: green heron, mockingbird, indigo bunting, kingbird. If you wake to this song beneath the open sky, your heart may beat too fast. You may not be certain whether or not you're still dreaming until you see the stars are already disappearing into the morning sky, flickering as they fade." Mystical sections in which Bobby's ghost appears are on the embarrassing side. As a mystery, the novel is oddly shaped, with a skinny opening (the murder of Lucy's neighbor takes place offstage), a ponderous midsection and a slight, devoid-of-drama ending.

Hoffman describes what sex there is with discreet indirection. Yet Lucy and Julian remain alluring characters. Their apparent decency and ability to love fill the spots usually occupied in crime novels by sweaty sex and/or bravado displays. If this book does represent a career move, it is one that, for the most part, shows how well subtlety and thoughtful, precise writing travel. (Putnam's, $21.95)

by Julia Lieblich

Although Julia Lieblich, who is Jewish, had never met any nuns until 1982, she writes that she was always fascinated with their portrayal in literature and film. Bernadette in The Song of Bernadette was a favorite, Lieblich writes, because "she had that cosmic connection with God that eludes us mere mortals."

A former FORTUNE reporter and currently a graduate student in theology at the Harvard Divinity School, Lieblich explores that connection through mesmerizing portraits of four contemporary nuns. Like the author, readers may approach the topic with some preconceptions: that nuns almost always wear habits—or at least drab garb—not the jeans and T-shirts favored by Sister Darlene Nicgorski of Mississippi, who was convicted of "conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens" from Latin America (her lawyer argued in court that they were political refugees); that contemplative nuns speak in hushed, pious tones, not "loudly and clearly," like Sister Catherine O'Reilly, who describes docile sisters as being "nunny"; that a vow of celibacy means a sister is not permitted to feel a deep, spiritual love for anyone but God. Through interviews and observation, Lieblich turns such conventions inside out. But she never—and this is the trick—condemns either the Church or the sisters. Even when writing about the Sanctuary Movement and abortion rights, Lieblich lets the sisters tell their stories.

But she asks pointed questions about serving a Church that denies women some basic rights or even opinions on such fundamental topics as women in the clergy. "Would you change denominations to be ordained?" Lieblich asks a group of nuns. "No," comes the defiant reply. Why not? "Because it's my Church, too, damn it, and they need to know I'm out there. They need to know that my voice is as valid as anybody else's." Now, thanks to Lieblich's probing and insight, we know they're out there too. (Ballantine, $20)

by James Brady

The fun thing about romans à clef is trying to figure out which characters are thinly veiled versions of which real people. But smart novelists, like Brady, former publisher of Women's Wear Daily, know how to throw you off track.

By page 10, for example, you might guess that his protagonist, Bingham (Bingo) Marsh III, mercurial, difficult but wackily brilliant editor of Fashion magazine, is the fictional version of John Fairchild, editor of Women's Wear Daily. But suddenly Brady introduce the real Fairchild as Marsh's nemesis/rival.

A scheme to avoid a libel suit? Maybe—but it doesn't matter. Brady's depiction of the fashion world—its magazine editors, designers, socialites and general hangers-on—is so accurate, the specific names are irrelevant. Some of them may be miffed at being portrayed as buffoons; the rest of us need only be amused.

Not that Brady's book is mean spirited—in fact, its tone is one of bemused fascination, thanks to the narrator, John "the Shark" Sharkey, a frustrated reporter for The New York Times who eventually becomes a star columnist for Fashion. While the Shark recognizes all of Marsh's ridiculousness—his pomposity, pettiness and penchant for malapropism—he loves him nonetheless.

Which is how you might feel about this book. Silly, inside and frivolous, it shouldn't be stacked anywhere near Literature. Park it instead with the G's—for Gossip. And Good Read. (Little, Brown, $ 19.95)

by Gioia Diliberto

When Hadley Richardson was 28 and a shy, attractive red-haired virgin, she met and fell in love with a charming, brash, talented man eight years her junior. Unfortunately for Hadley, her handsome young beau was Ernest Hemingway.

But before Hemingway became a posturing caricature of Mr. Macho Author, these two midwesterners had a six-year marriage (1921—27) that was fulfilling both sexually and creatively, a son (Jack Hemingway, father of Margaux and Mariel) and some grand times as Americans in Paris when Paris was the place to be.

"Their love transformed them both," writes Diliberto, a former assistant editor at PEOPLE and author of Debutante: The Story of Brenda Frazier, in this impressively researched and judiciously written biography. "Hadley went from being a weak, enervated spinster, melancholy and afraid of life, to a vibrant young woman, eager for new experiences.... With her, [Hemingway] discovered his artistic identity and developed the full range of his talents."

Many years (and three wives) later, Hemingway came to realize just how good he had had it with Hadley. (His output during their marriage included the Nick Adams stories and The Sun Also Rises.) As he wrote in A Moveable Feast, his posthumously published memoir of their Paris years, "I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her."

As for Hadley, after Hemingway ditched her for Pauline Pfeiffer, she married Paul Scott Mowrer, a journalist and poet, and as Diliberto puts it, "went on to lead a cheery, if somewhat tipsy, life." She died at 87 in 1979, 18 years after Ernest's grisly suicide.

Hadley credits its subject with helping to shape Hemingway without overexaggerating her influence or importance. "Hadley's place in literary history," Diliberto writes, "ended with her divorce from Ernest." But Diliberto has made a lasting place for Hadley in readers' hearts. (Ticknor & Fields, $24.95)

by Jenefer Shute

One day I will be thin enough. Just the bones, no disfiguring flesh, just the-pure, clear shape of me." Meet Josie, the 25-year-old narrator of Shute's nightmare of a first novel. She's a 5'2", 67-lb. grad student hospitalized with anorexia. Josie offers a disturbing monologue on everything from how she keeps herself from fainting to the precise calorie count of each item on her food tray to the exhortations of women's magazines to be somebody.

Shute, 32, knows her character well. "At age 17, I was well on my way to becoming anorexic...," she writes. "I still live with the phobia of becoming fat."

The mind of an anorexic isn't a pleasant place. Josie obsessively examines her skeletal frame for signs of fat, eyes with disgust a greasy gob of cheese and then salivates over a restaurant review. She has blackouts and her hair is falling out, yet she's determined to do her leg lifts and, frequently, exercise her sarcastic wit as well. "(Q. Describe your habitual mode of exercise. A. Going too far. Q. Have you ever ceased menstruating for more than two months? A. Whenever possible.)" She mocks body awareness therapy and barely puts up with the psychiatrist. Sometimes she does eat, slicing her apple into sixteenths and taking four minutes to digest each sliver. Only when she's threatened with tube feeding does she reluctantly promise to eat a bit more.

In a montage of memories, Josie recalls her fat mother, her best friend who blossomed into a gorgeous teen while Josie just ballooned, a series of unsatisfying sexual encounters and a once favorite breakfast of diluted skim milk with instant coffee, sugar substitute and ice whirred in a blender.

Suddenly, Josie is declared to be "at a weight now where normal physiological functioning is possible," and is about to be discharged. How did this happen? Yes, she gained a few pounds, but we've never seen any sign of motivation on Josie's part, and the doctors haven't seemed able to reach her. Even as she's planning a clothes-buying jaunt with the nurse, Josie is contemplating her "huge" thighs.

Shute brilliantly captures the torment and self-loathing of a body-obsessed person. But she should have better mapped signs of progress leading to Josie's abrupt dismissal. As it is, readers aren't prepared for it any more than Josie is. (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95)

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Sara Nelson,
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Carol Peace.