by Kevin Baker

Set in Coney Island and on Manhattan's Lower East Side at the turn of the century, Dreamland is a boisterous, rollicking carnival. Historical figures (Freud, Jung, Edison) mingle with imaginary characters—sideshow freaks, Tammany Hall politicos, and petty criminals with names like Gyp the Blood—in this epic recreation of an era. Romance and intrigue keep the plot moving briskly, but Baker, chief historical researcher for Harold Evans's The American Century, shows more imagination than depth. Dreamland's multiple plots and high spirits can be a little wearying, and readers with any historical knowledge at all will see the novel's surprises coming far in advance. Still, it's a welcome chance to inhabit a time that seems so much livelier and more hopeful than our own. (HarperCollins, $26)

Bottom Line: Ragtime on steroids

by Christopher Buckley

Book of the week

Imagine that ode to White House vaporizing, Independence Day, as rewritten by H.L. Mencken, and you've got this hilarious novel by the author of Thank You for Smoking. When a George Will-ish commentator named John Oliver Banion gets abducted by federal agents posing as aliens in a secret program meant to fuel public support for defense spending, Buckley sets up a match in which both sides are gargantuan but ridiculous—sort of like sumo wrestling—and proceeds to merrily shred both self-justifying government agencies and the Y2K-fearing, X-Files-decoding subculture while seriously advancing the field of body-cavity-probe jokes. Banion becomes a hero to millions, leads a D.C. demonstration ("the Millennium Man March") and, in a giddy finale, clashes with a President trying not to alienate his anti-alien nation. The best bits are when Buckley's commando wit parachutes in for satirical sneak attacks. Who can resist gags about an industrial giant hawking a reclining electric chair ("like being at home watching football, only you're being electrocuted"), a sci-fi/country singer named Darth Brooks, or the Senate Hindsight Committee? (Random House, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Close encounter of the funniest kind

by Lara Stein and Benjamin Yoskovitz

You're in a state of disconnect with your boss. When blamestorming, she fingers you as the newbie, the lightweight or worse, the stress puppy. And sitting in that cubicle day after day is enough to make you go postal. Well, maybe you just need to leverage your skill set, like Tom Davis, the Silicon Valley scientist who devised this entertaining bingo spinoff. One day, inspired by a company blackboard covered with corporate jargon, he came up with a way to shuffle a database of buzzwords and generate bingo cards filled with them. The game has since spread faster than a computer virus (a mention in Dilbert helped). This guidebook, with dictionary and game cards, may help you actualize your dream, conceive killer apps and climb up the org chart. And without working 24/7! (Villard, $9.95)

Bottom Line: A win-win game

by John le Carré

This is the story of a cat and a rat: Tiger Single, a British lawyer and laundryman for the soiled money of the post-Soviet black markets in everything from drugs to blood, is betrayed by his ethics-stricken son and heir, Oliver. As in his best novels, le Carré reveals a world at once deeply disquieting and oddly reassuring. With his mammoth research, le Carré is as much a great journalist as a novelist, but whereas "real" journalists often fill the daily newspapers with chaos and buffoonery, le Carré sees deep structure. In his shadowy wars the combatants are master strategists who find the best armor is believing that the differences between right and wrong are merely technical. As Oliver puts it, "There's no white horse. More a sort of merry-go-round."

Le Carré often tosses a protagonist into a snake pit of tangled loyalties to face bodily or spiritual doom. But Oliver simply repents his treason and spends the second half of the book in action-hero mode, dashing around trying to save the life of his dad (modeled after le Carré's own con-man father) like a good boy. Where's the fun in that? (Scribner, $26)

Bottom Line: This latest is far from his finest

by Anne Rice

In her newest vampire novel, Anne Rice reminds us, ad nauseam, that teenagers—even 500-year-old ones—are often melodramatic and long-winded. Recounting his transformation from a 16-year-old son of an Italian Renaissance noble to a member of the undead, Vittorio shares the passion of first love, the horror of violence, the beauty of art, the evil of demons and the wonder of angels. Alas, his story reads too much like a dime-store bodice-ripper crossed with a low-budget horror flick.

The plot centers on Vittorio's quest to avenge his murdered family, which leads him to a demonic mass, a Florentine monastery and a town where no one dies. Of course, there are plenty of unholy love scenes between Vittorio and his besotted love interest, Ursula. Though we are well-bathed in period atmosphere and devilish details, neither frills nor tricks can rescue this tedious tale. (Knopf, $19.95)

Bottom Line: Horror show

>THE FIRES René Steinke Already snapped up by aspiring movie producer Madonna, this debut novel generates lots of heat with its story of a woman, once disfigured in a fire, with a compulsive need to set blazes. (Morrow, $23)

BASILICA William D. Montalbano

No ordinary whodunit, this mystery—in which a former Miami homicide cop investigates a murder in the Vatican sometime in the near future—explores conscience as well as crime. (Putnam, $23.95)

I WISH I WERE THIN, I WISH I WERE FAT Michelle Joy Levine A psychotherapist explains why even the most diet-aware women can be subconsciously compelled to remain fat. (Fireside, $12)

>pet detectives

It isn't just fog that comes in on little cat feet—nowadays, plenty of mysteries do too. From Koko, the sphinx-like star of The Cat Who...series to tough-talking Midnight Louie, cat sleuths are clawing their way onto national bestseller lists. Here's a guide to some of the best:

Cat in an Indigo Mood by Carole Nelson Douglas Feline P.I. Midnight Louie prowls the alleys of Las Vegas, solving crimes and romancing runaways like a furry Sam Spade. This time out, his quick-thinking daughter Midnight Louise lends a paw as the always engaging Louie stalks a serial killer. (Forge, $24.95)

The Cat Who Saw Stars by Lilian Jackson Braun

While on vacation at Moose Lake, Jim Qwilleran and his beloved Siamese cats Koko and Yum Yum dig up a dead backpacker and stumble into a somewhat jumbled—but thoroughly entertaining—murder mystery. (Putnam, $22.95)

Cat on the Scent by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown

Intrepid cats Mrs. Murphy and Pewter—with interspecies cooperation from Tucker, a corgi—uncover evidence, solve a murder and stage a rescue. Too precious at times but ultimately charming. (Bantam, $23.95)

  • Contributors:
  • Francine Prose,
  • Kyle Smith,
  • Paula Chin,
  • Amy Waldman,
  • Cynthia Sanz.