by Charles Frazier

Like Homer's Odyssey, this is the story of a soldier slowly making his way home from war to the woman he left behind. Frazier's Cold Mountain doesn't rank with Homer, but it's a great read—a stirring Civil War tale told with what book promoters like to call "epic sweep."

A Confederate soldier who enlisted to repel invaders, Inman, who is wounded outside Petersburg, now deserts, appalled by the slaughter. He walks across the ravaged, lawless South to the sweetheart who waits for. him on an isolated farm. Ada's domestic struggles offer a quiet counterpoint to Inman's rougher adventures.

Frazier's occasional reaches for an antique effect strike the only unconvincing chords in a novel loaded with vivid historical detail. When Inman pulls a gun, you feel its heft and know the damage it will do. When Ada buries cabbage heads for the lean winter, you dig alongside her in the "gravelike" trench behind the smokehouse. Frazier makes you yearn for Inman and Ada's reunion as you fear for their fate. (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24)

by Elizabeth George

This ninth volume of George's literate British mystery series veers away from the crisp restraint of sleuth Thomas Lynley's aristocracy to the working-class terrain of his clumsily endearing partner Sergeant Barbara Havers.

Still bearing the conspicuous bruises and humiliations of a too-close encounter in the bestselling In the Presence of the Enemy, Sergeant Havers is ordered to rest. Instead she leaves London to follow her mysterious neighbor Taymullah Azhar and his young daughter to the North Sea.

Azhar has been summoned by relatives to keep tabs on the police as they work to solve the murder of a recent immigrant. Defying protocol, Havers insinuates herself into the case, which presents a fascinating list of suspects, including the victim's beautiful, evasive fiancée, an Asian political agitator and a disfigured jewelry store owner. There are wrenching stories here, and George conveys them with exceptional grace. The novel's climax may seem far-fetched, but the passions that build up to it are hauntingly real. (Bantam,$24.95)

by Emily Whaley in conversation with William Baldwin

If we can't actually spend an afternoon strolling amid the camellias in Emily Whaley's Charleston garden, the next best thing is stretching out with her delightful book that guides us through the 30-by-110-foot plot that she has nurtured for six decades.

Whaley is generous with horticultural advice on matters ranging from pruning to the judicious use of color: "Red...seems to catch the eye and hold it, thus diminishing the value of the flowers adjacent." Her lively mind and memories range beyond the garden walls. Reminiscing about her parents, she recaptures a vanished way of life—the romantic gentility of Old South Carolina. Her book is perfect as a summer-weekend house gift, a chance to while away the hours with the entrancing creator of an enchanted garden. (Algonquin $16.95)

by Tara McCarthy

It must have sounded promising in the pitch meeting: Take an attractive, socially active 25-year-old virgin and have her write an intimate book about what it is like to be undefiled. Turns out it's pretty darn dull.

Or at least it is as described by McCarthy, a Catholic, Harvard-educated rock critic who takes us through her vestal adventures with excruciating smugness and a devastating lack of wit. McCarthy introduces a string of hapless boyfriends, each of whom she disqualifies from receiving the "biggest gift." But there were consolation prizes: McCarthy routinely rounded a couple of bases with her baffled dates before drawing a distinction between virginity and purity.

In the end, McCarthy's aversion to "going all the way" seems less a moral matter than the consequence of her hyperanalytical nature. Which is not to say that virginity isn't an admirable choice; it is. But writing a dreary, self-righteous book about it is shameful. (Warner, $22)

by John Banville

What makes a spy? This thriller engagingly searches for fictional answers among the real English university pals, including Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, who rose to political and cultural power while spying for the U.S.S.R. Author Banville, literary editor of the Irish Times, casts a fresh eye on this well-trampled ground as he models Victor Maskell on art historian and royal intimate Sir Anthony Blunt. Denounced as a Soviet agent when he is in his 70s and ill with cancer, Maskell vividly details the group's activities—social, sexual and political. What emerges is a portrait of arrogance born of privilege. A fastidious homosexual and unblinking observer, Maskell takes his place with John le Carré's Alec Leamas as one of spy fiction's greatest characters. Poetic and deeply affecting, The Untouchable belongs on every history-lover's shelf. (Knopf, $25)

by David Hunt

Beach Book of the Week

KAY FARROW IS A WALKING CONTRADICTION. Although an inherited condition has rendered her incapable of discerning colors, the young San Franciscan has nonetheless become a successful photographer on the strength of her keen eye. Now her perceptual abilities are about to be tested as she tries to figure out who butchered Tim Lovsey, the gorgeous street hustler who was her subject and friend.

It's not long before Kay's descent into the nether leather world turns treacherous. Those who desperately want to stop her investigation include some of Tim's powerful, deeply closeted clients—not to mention the police, who fear embarrassment from the murder's similarities to a string of earlier unsolved serial killings.

Writing under a pen name, suspense novelist William Bayer mesmerizes with his sleight of hand. But the book's lingering spell lies in the way its heroine's perspective enables us to see, as if for the first time, her beloved city in all its chiaroscuro splendor. (Putnam, $24.95)

>CONTACT SPORT Jodie Foster may reach out to extraterrestrials in Contact, but she has nothing on Francis Ford Coppola, who is making a different kind of foray into the Great Beyond: He's suing Carl Sagan, who died last December. Coppola claims Sagan, author of the book Contact, stole his idea and reneged on an agreement to jointly develop the 1985 bestseller. Instead, Coppola alleges, Sagan went behind his back to sell movie rights to Warner Bros. Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, calls the suit "absolutely baseless." Coppola, who is seeking damages, filed it six days after Sagan's death.

BEAN THERE, READ THAT Thanks to the grand ol' Oprah, Starbucks now features star books from the daytime doyenne's book club, with profits earmarked for charity. Oprah's June pick, Mary McGarry Morris's Songs in Ordinary Time, is Starbucks' first foray into latte-rature. Literacy Chicago and Seattle Goodwill's Community Learning Center have already received $20,000 grants.

MUSIC OF THE SPHERES Add 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Ten Commandments and you get...$600,000. That's what first-time novelist Mary Doria Russell, 46, could land for the film rights to her opus, The Sparrow. Antonio Banderas will star as Father Emilio Sandoz, who goes on an interstellar trip he believes is blessed by God after a radio telescope picks up extraterrestrial music. The book is "more an exploration of the human soul," says Russell, "than the exploration of another planet. It is not a sci-fi action adventure, where everything blows up." Well, there's a concept.

>Gavin de Becker

A CHEER FOR FEAR

As a Hollywood security consultant, Gavin de Becker has helped insure the safety of stars like Madonna, Michelle Pfeiffer and newlyweds Brooke Shields and Andre Agassi. In his new book, The Gift of Fear (Little, Brown, $22.95), de Becker offers advice on how to ward off everything from spousal abuse to random violence by picking up on subtle behaviors. "When you listen to the wind chimes," says de Becker, 42, "you won't have need for the Klaxons." Correspondent Danelle Morton spoke with de Becker in L.A.:

Why do you call fear a gift?

Real fear is a gift because it is a survival signal that sounds in the presence of danger. If you turn it off, you won't be informed when you are in danger. Unwarranted fear is a waste of time; it's destructive. My book communicates the differences.

If a woman thinks she is being followed by a man, what should she do?

Turn around fully and look at him square-faced. Not only are you gaining all kinds of information, you are sending a message that says, "I am not your frightened victim-in-waiting."

What if she is still unsure?

If your body says run, have at it. What does it cost you?

Are you ever afraid?

There are certainly times when I may say, "What was that?" and go back and double-check. The fear stops in an instant when you address it.

  • Contributors:
  • Adam Begley,
  • Susan Toepfer,
  • Francine Prose,
  • Alex Tresniowski,
  • J.D. Reed,
  • Pam Lambert,
  • Lan N. Nguyen.