Jacquelyn Mitchard

Mitchard's bestselling first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, captured readers' hearts in 1996 with its searing portrayal of maternal love. This time she explores the reckless desire that can seize even the most sensible girl at a vulnerable moment.

Arley Mowbray is just 14 when she begins corresponding with a handsome 23-year-old prisoner named Dillon. They share a hardscrabble Texas upbringing and a love of poetry and work up quite a lather before Arley agrees to marry him so they can have a conjugal visit. Their one night together sets off a chain of devastating aftershocks.

Though poignantly told in alternating voices by Arley and her lawyer (and substitute mom) Annie Singer, The Most Wanted is marred by a certain heavy-handedness. The poetry the lovers write for each other is unconvincing, and naming characters Dillon Thomas LeGrande or Claude Monet is a distraction. Nevertheless, anyone who has ever fallen for an unsuitable love will respond to Mitchard's tale of the yearning that transcends reason. (Viking, $24.95)

Bottom Line: A corny love song that will get you in the end

by Richard Bausch

Page-turner of the week

Just how well do any of us really know our nearest and dearest? Not a truly original question, perhaps, but one which gets a novel spin in this provocative and heart-piercing thriller.

In the few short month since failing Virginia contractor Jack Michaelson's death in a car crash, his widow and 11-year-old son have been struggling to cope. Just when things slowly seem to be improving, they and a kindly black neighbor start getting hate mail. And then disaster strikes—as Jack's secrets put all their lives in jeopardy.

With his powerful style and penetrating sense of character, Bausch keeps us hooked even through stretches of almost excruciating tension and sporadic violence that some readers may find excessive. This disturbing book is likely to have you losing sleep for more reasons than one. (Harper-Flamingo, $24)

Bottom Line: Darkly brilliant thriller

by Ron Suskind

Within a single year at Washington, D.C.'s Ballou High School, a boy was shot, a girl knifed in a gang-related fight and a body dumped behind the parking lot. Amid this chaos was Cedric Jennings: a soft-spoken calculus whiz, gifted singer and son of a devoutly religious single mother pushing mightily to make the rent and survive.

Ron Suskind, a Wall Street Journal reporter who won a 1995 Pulitzer Prize, paints an absorbing and moving portrait of the young man's passage from the turmoil of high school through his lonely first year at Brown University. It is a tough journey, but Jennings's perseverance and success offer hope to anyone struggling against the odds. (Broadway, $25)

Bottom Line: Inspiring tale of a youth traversing two worlds

by Sue Grafton

Kinsey Millhone is not one for long goodbyes. So when she separates from her boyfriend, the California sleuth takes the first job that comes along, heading off to sleepy Nota Lake to investigate the death of a local detective. All she knows is that the widow says he was terribly worried about something before his heart attack. Millhone works the case unenthusiastically for several days and is about to pack it in when a guy in a ski mask drives by one night, points two fingers like the barrel of a gun and plugs her with imaginary bullets. Then the fun begins.

The plot of the 14th novel in Grafton's alphabet series is engaging enough (even if she tightens the Noose too quickly at the end). But the real pleasure is hanging out with Kinsey, a soft-boiled shamus in a hard-bitten world, who worries that the people she interrogates are not dressing warmly enough and feels her derriere growing with every morsel she eats. She's no pushover, though. When the guy in the ski mask bears down on her, Kinsey responds by flippin' him the bird. (Holt, $25)

Bottom Line: Diverting whodunit, but not letter-perfect

by Cormac McCarthy

The men who inhabit McCarthy's acclaimed Border Trilogy talk about everything—the weather, the West, horse-breaking and horse-trading—in laconic cowboy monosyllables that add up to poetry. They're lean, capable Marlboro Men who are, however, given to hightailing it off to Mexico on sudden, quixotic quests. Cities of the Plain, set in 1952, ends the trilogy and brings us, once again, John Grady Cole of All the Pretty Horses and his friend Billy Parham. Cole is in love with a teen prostitute. He plans her rescue from the pimp who owns her, attends to his business on the ranch and learns the price of manhood.

This isn't McCarthy's strongest novel, and there's a 28-page epilogue that teeters on the line between Art and Pretension. But McCarthy, even on an off day, is nestled comfortably in the top rank of American novelists. (Knopf, $24)

Bottom Line: Prime stock—and more than a western

  • Contributors:
  • Emily Listfield,
  • Pam Lambert,
  • Thomas Fields-Meyer,
  • William Plummer,
  • Michael Neill.