by Rick Bass

Have you ever seen trees explode from sheer cold? Or heard the clacking of caribou antlers? Rick Bass has, and in his debut novel (after 11 books of nonfiction and stories) he tells what it's really like to rough it through a winter in the mountains.

The story line is simple: Old Dudley, a rapacious oilman, dispatches Wallis, a young geologist, to prospect in a remote Montana valley. Wallis shares a cabin with Mel, Old Dudley's daughter, who lives year-round in the valley, studying a pack of wolves; he falls in love with the woman and the place.

Bass writes about nature as well as anyone in the business. It's too bad he allowed his plot to turn into an operatic encounter between good and evil and padded the book with Old Dudley's snooze-inducing journals. Brush aside the people, and the view of the wilderness is spectacular. (Houghton Mifflin, $25)

Bottom Line: An unsteady walk on the wild side

by John Jakes

Historical novelist John Jakes (the North and South trilogy) settles once and for all when "the good old days" were: the decade before the American entry into World War I, when an idyllic nation embraced the new century with hope and ambition. Times were simple then, he suggests, and in this sweeping sequel to his bestselling novel Homeland, so were the aspirations of the next generation of Chicago's wealthy Crown family.

Their pursuits are distinctly modern—for that time. Frustrated stage actress Fritzi Crown, 26, heads off for a place called Hollywood. Her brother Carl, a Princeton dropout, pursues fantasies of auto racing and aerial barnstorming. And cousin Paul photographs world events, from suffragette protests to atrocities committed by the German army in Belgium. Meanwhile the young Crowns have a Ragtime-like knack for catching the eye of the soon-to-be-famous, like Mary Pickford, Henry Ford, Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill.

Readers, like the characters themselves, have little chance to savor personalities or relationships as Jakes's plot, embellished by rich historical detail, whisks the appealing Crown clan across the continents at breakneck speed. (Dutton, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Sparkling family saga

by Lisa Michaels

In 1963, when Lisa Michaels was 4 months old, her parents—a passionate but ill-matched pair of radical activists—separated. Three years later, her father was sent to prison for over two years for taking part in a violent protest against the Vietnam War. Split, Lisa Michaels' wry, eloquent memoir, chronicles the aftermath of these events—a childhood spent on rural communes, traveling and living in a mail truck with her mother and stepfather and her later shuttling back and forth between her parents, who started new families in different parts of California and resolutely maintained their commitment to social justice and their scorn for middle-class materialism. The book ends with Michaels' moving description of her recent wedding to her college boyfriend from UCLA.

Neither self-pitying nor judgmental, Michaels gives us a vivid sense of the times through which she has lived, a portrait of two people who were a little too good for this world and for their own child. It is also a moving account of how we grow up and establish our own identities by learning to navigate the fine line between loyalty and independence. (Houghton Mifflin, $23)

Bottom Line: Thoughtful memoir from a flower-power kid grown up

by Patricia Cornwell

Beach book of the week

Think things couldn't get much worse than a threatening letter from a serial killer? Well, if you're Virginia's chief medical examiner, Kay Scarpetta, guess again. After receiving the missive, Scarpetta discovers in short order that instead of taking a long-awaited vacation with her lover, she'll be digging for body parts at a grisly fire scene—and that her psycho pen pal, Carrie Grethen, has escaped from custody.

Scarpetta's latest travails spell gripping reading for fans of such Cornwell nail-biters as Unnatural Exposure. Juggling the plotlines about Grethen and the unexplained blazes for maximum suspense while mining the minutiae of arson investigations for the same kind of forensic epiphanies she has previously found in the pathology lab, Cornwell lights a fire under familiar characters—and sparks her hottest adventure in years. (Putnam, $25.95)

Bottom Line: Incendiary thriller

edited by Jamie Foster Brown

Betty Shabazz's world didn't begin the day that she married Malcolm X or end on the day he was killed in 1965. This slim but heartfelt tribute to her life, issued a year after she died from injuries received in a fire set by her grandson, gathers remembrances from friends, colleagues and admirers—including actress Ruby Dee, poet Maya Angelou and former NAACP chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of the martyred civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

Many of the recollections offer glimpses of the private Shabazz, a woman who loved to do line dances like the electric slide or the achy breaky. Other friends marvel at a mother who raised six daughters alone, earned a doctorate and quietly became an educational leader in her own right. Shabazz "made a certain impact on a lot of lives, without a lot of fanfare," writes Evers-Williams, "and was so much more than Malcolm's widow." (Simon & Schuster, $23)

Bottom Line: Poignant eulogies for a courageous woman

>THE PILOT'S WIFE Anita Shreve A plane goes down and, with it, the illusion of a happy marriage in this taut novel by the acclaimed author of The Weight of Water. (Little, Brown, $23.95)

FORTUNES OF WAR Stephen Coonts From the master of the techno-thriller (Flight of the Intruder), a gripping tale of a new Russo-Japanese war. (St. Martin's, $24.95)

FAMILY MAN Calvin Trillin When it comes to dry humor, Trillin rules: Here he trains his bemused eye on the joys and pains of child-rearing. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $20)

  • Contributors:
  • Adam Begley,
  • Erica Sanders,
  • Francine Prose,
  • Pam Lambert,
  • Nick Charles.