by Caroline Preston

Cyberphobe Lucy Crocker, heroine of Preston's second comedy of manners, is the outsider in a family of confirmed computer geeks. Although her artwork has been incorporated into a highly successful computer game, she neither understands nor likes the new technology. Now her ponytailed husband, Ed, chief executive officer of Crocker Software, wants her to contribute to a second version of the game.

Through the foibles and missteps of a hilarious cast of characters, Preston weighs in on some of today's hot-button issues with the same witty touch that won reviewers over in her first novel, 1997's Jackie by Josie. Ed, for instance, has been receiving Tantric massages from Crocker's punk publicity director, while Lucy has just caught her wire-head 13-year-old twin boys downloading porn. Fed up, Lucy heads off to Wisconsin's north woods and, after depositing her kids at her old summer camp, settles in at her dad's (nonwired) lakeside cabin to sulk.

Even as Preston has you chuckling over the Crockers' shenanigans, you'll likely be thinking about where technology may be taking us and whether or not you really want to go there. (Scribner, $23) Bottom Line: Finely tweaked

by Jane Heller

Lucy Ricardo had nothing on Nancy Stern, heroine of the latest madcap murder mystery from Heller (Sis Boom Bah). Like TV's famously batty redhead, Nancy is easily dazzled by the glitz of show business—and she concocts some delightfully harebrained schemes to get a taste of the glamor. She even has an Ethel-like sidekick, a fellow preschool teacher who gets drawn into her pal's increasingly risky capers, prompting a villain to tie her to the bathroom faucets and stuff a sock in her mouth.

But Nancy is also a thoroughly modern woman, a quick-witted thirtysomething divorcée with a well-developed sense of cynicism who lives on Manhattan's Upper East Side. So when she sets out to impersonate a celebrity journalist in order to dine with the potential man of her dreams, the fallout is as much Sex and the City as I Love Lucy. Throw in a sinister scheme involving a notorious ring of diamond thieves, a sprinkling of clever plot twists and a dab of Space Goo (don't ask) and you've got a rollicking and delectable—if soufflé-light—summer read. (St. Martin's, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Saucy heroine and screwball plot add up to a romp

by Anchee Min

In her bestselling 1994 memoir Red Azalea, Min recounts being plucked from a work farm in China to star in one of Madame Mao's propaganda films. In this extraordinary new fictionalized biography, Min, 43, who now lives in California with her 7-year-old daughter, traces the life of her former boss. History has both demonized and ignored the woman who started out as the rebellious daughter of a concubine, became an actress, seduced Mao Zedong and then rose to power as a lethal force in Chinese politics. But with operatic grace, Min portrays Madame Mao as a vindictive powermonger whose apparent heartlessness is countered by a craving for love, which proves her downfall. (She died in jail in 1991.) "My nature refuses to live an invisible life," she says. Min lets her be seen as never before. (Houghton Mifflin, $25)

Bottom Line: Riveting novel

by Mario Puzo

Puzo's eighth and last novel—finished shortly before his death at age 78 last July—tells a familiar tale. After New York City Mafia leader Don Raymonde Aprile is gunned down by a rival family on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral, his Sicilian nephew Astorre takes charge. Astorre is one busy capo. He must avenge the murder, keep the don's three children safe from gang attack and make the family's legitimate banking business flourish—all the while steering clear of the FBI. In Omerta (a Sicilian term for silence and secrecy), Puzo serves up his usual peppery stew of betrayal and persuasion. One enemy finds not a horse's head but the bodies of his two dogs on his bed. A disobedient underling's arm, still wearing a Rolex watch, is delivered to a corrupt judge in a box made for long-stemmed flowers. The sparks of originality are few, however, and the narrative seems sketchy and, sadly, in need of further work. Still, though Puzo fails to flesh out his tale, even these bones are worth the read. (Random House, $25.95)

Bottom Line: The families are still feuding

Photographs by Michel Arnaud, text and stories by Robert Hicks

French photographer Arnaud has worked with Princess Diana, Cindy Crawford and other celebrities and has published his work in leading international fashion magazines. He knows something about dreams. On a trip to Nashville he found them in a pure and alluring form.

The best picture in this collection is of Chet Atkins, sitting in a comfortable chair tuning his guitar. There are less engaging shots of such performers as Dolly Parton, Pam Tillis and Earl Scruggs and cozy pictures of spouses Matraca Berg and Jeff Hanna, among others. Yet while there are many interesting pictures in the book, Arnaud seems not to have grasped the peculiar combinations of hope and disappointment, art and commerce, subtlety and garishness that characterize the city that is the capital of both Tennessee and the country-music business. Where are the telling pictures of struggling young performers at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge or the Bluebird Cafe, or big-name stars in unguarded moments, or rabid admirers at Fan Fair? (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $27.50)

Bottom Line: Music City keeps its secrets

by Elizabeth Peters

Fiction's best-known British archeological team—Amelia Peabody, husband Radcliffe Emerson and their antiquity-obsessed brood—are back in Egypt for the winter of 1914. Cairo is buzzing with rumors of an imminent attempt to wrest control of the Suez Canal from the British, and since archeology is an excellent cover for subversive activity, the Emersons are pressed into service hunting down spies and other dastardly villains. Peters's last historical thriller, The Falcon at the Portal, ended with the breakup of a budding romance between Nephret, the Emersons' ward, and Ramses, their son. This latest novel picks up where Falcon left off, though readers need not have read the earlier book to enjoy this one.

Peters, an American, brings her Ph.D. in Egyptology to bear on this and 11 other books in the series. Her cast of stiff-upper-lip Brits, who dare to go out in the noonday sun, mixes hilarity in with the history lesson. (Morrow, $25)

Bottom Line: Kicks up a desert storm

Compiled and edited by Les Standiford

Beach book of the week

Gazillionaire Phillip Bates isn't content to be one of the world's richest men. No, the Seattle-based software baron—any resemblance to actual persons is strictly intentional—burns to be thought of as more than just another geek who made good. And he wants as much respect for his chip shot as for his chips. Which is why Bates decides to launch his revolutionary new computer-operating system with something just as radical: the world peace summit/pro-am golf tournament, which is the catalyst for this amusingly over-the-top thriller.

Like Standiford's Naked Came the Manatee in 1997, The Putt was created by an all-star team of writers—including Dave Barry, Tami Hoag and Ridley Pearson. Each contributes a chapter, trying to top each other like a clubhouse full of duffers spinning yarns about their holes in one. For readers willing to suspend disbelief, and with at least a tolerance for the game, it's a good walk on the wild side. (Warner, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Zany high jinks on and off the links

>EASY PREY John Sandford Lurid secrets come to light when Minneapolis cop Lucas Davenport delves into the murder of mega-model Alie'e. (Putnam, $25.95)

ROADS Larry McMurtry Ruminating on a real-life road trip, the author observes, among other things, that reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show are best viewed in Minnesota. (Simon & Schuster, $25)

  • Contributors:
  • Jean Reynolds,
  • Laura Jamison,
  • Anne-Marie O'Neill,
  • J.D. Reed,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Pam Lambert.