by Nathaniel Philbrick

Just in time for vacation reading comes this true tale of the sea that might keep you on dry sand all summer. The year is 1820, and the captain of the Nantucket whaleship Essex is cruising a lonely corner of the Pacific when a seemingly crazed sperm whale rises from the deep and rams the ship's wooden hull, sending the Essex to the bottom. If this sounds familiar, it is because Melville based Moby Dick on this very incident. Whittled away by thirst, hunger and cannibalism-and you thought CBS's Survivor was rough—the ship's crew of 20 fight for life aboard three leaky boats, each not much bigger than a covered wagon. Philbrick's telling of who survives (and who doesn't) across nearly 3,000 miles of hostile ocean is informative and gripping. (Viking, $24.95)

Bottom Line: One whale of a yarn

by Jane Green

A 1996 runaway bestseller in Britain and later in the U.S., Bridget Jones's Diary has spawned a veritable genre of breezy, comic novels about the romantic and personal struggles of young single women. And Jemima Jones, heroine of Green's U.S. debut novel, might easily be taken for Bridget's overweight sister.

A London journalist, Jemima feels trapped writing a household-tips column for a grubby, down-market London newspaper. And though smart and funny, she weighs nearly 100 lbs. more than she would like to. She secretly adores Ben, her Hugh Grant lookalike colleague, but he doesn't see her as girlfriend material.

Jemima's life undergoes a seismic shift, however, when she points and clicks her way into an online romance with Brad, a California fitness guru, reinventing herself as J.J., a buff, long-haired TV host, simply by morphing her face onto a fashion model's body and e-mailing the results to Brad. Now all she has to do is starve off 100 lbs. before meeting him.

Like Diary, this sparkler from British journalist-turned-novelist Green (who confesses to being a veteran of yo-yo dieting herself) was also a bestseller in the U.K. It conveys with sass and humor both the invisibility of the overweight and the shallow perks that accrue to the thin and beautiful. Green has entertainingly updated the Cinderella story, though Jemima finds that even in the vastness of cyberspace, a charming prince is hard to find. (Broadway, $20)

Bottom Line: Sweet and tasty

by Caitlin Macy

Fitzgerald and Hemingway are different from you and me: They're dead. Not, however, to Caitlin Macy, who has summoned their spirits in an insightful first novel about freshly minted Ivy League grads on the prowl for love (but willing to settle for stock options) in early-'90s Manhattan.

Like Fitzgerald, Macy winks at a world where it's always cocktail hour, young bucks actually trade quips at gentlemen's clubs, and sleeping may be optional but sailing is not. Narrator George Lenhart, whose family's old money has mildewed instead of multiplied, quietly longs for the engagingly cruel patrician Kate Goode-now. She prefers the attentions of a panting pup named Harry Lombardi, a sawed-off social outcast who finds that a little money can make you an incast. The finale is fraught with Victorian contrivance, but so is The Great Gatsby's; in both cases, what resonates is the style and sharp eye for detail.

Macy, 30, writes with an insider's wisdom, which lends a note of empathy to her satire of glossy misery. Her character shadings rival Hemingway's: George is as heartbreakingly inert as Jake Barnes and Kate as frustratingly unreachable as Lady Brett in The Sun Also Rises. And like Hemingway, Macy finds the poetry of regret without stumbling into sentimentality. (Random House, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Tour de force

by Jeffery Deaver

Beach book of the week

Lincoln Rhyme, the paraplegic forensic specialist memorably played by Denzel Washington in the film version of Deaver's The Bone Collector, takes on a truly bizarre case this time. While awaiting a spinal operation, Rhyme is cajoled by a North Carolina sheriff, cousin of a New York City colleague, into helping track down a fugitive known locally as the Insect Boy—so named for a hornet's nest that has been linked to some of his grislier crimes. The orphaned teenager kidnapped a nurse only a day after he had bludgeoned a local athlete and abducted another young woman. As Rhyme's assistant Amelia Sachs heads up the posse, racing against bounty hunters and a police turncoat to locate the teen, she also finds that a lot of the buzz about the runaway doesn't add up. Deaver can evoke the backwoods South with deft humor—"Tomel's idea of lawn decorations was parking his F-250 in the front yard and his Suburban in the back"—and he manages to sustain the thrills, which come thick and fast. But a series of jaw-dropping climactic twists may leave the reader feeling as much manipulated as breathless. (Simon & Schuster, $25)

Bottom Line: Stinging swampland suspense

by Bill Fitzhugh

All of a sudden, Father Michael, a good-guy Catholic priest, finds himself feeling ill in L.A. His evil twin brother, Dan, a scuzzy advertising exec, lends him his health insurance card. The poor padre's situation turns fatal. Insurance fraud charges loom. Faster than you can say "altar ego," Dan dons clerical attire, assumes his late brother's identity and finds himself trying to save a woefully underfunded mission run by the selfless Sister Peg. And eew, Dan has the hots for her.

If this comic novel—propelled by a wild plot but populated by characters as flat as flounder—sounds like a movie, well, it is, or soon will be. Author Fitzhugh (Pest Control) sold the rights for $1.25 million to Universal before Cross Dressing was even published. On top of that, Fitzhugh, himself an ex-adman, wangled a deal to plug Seagram products in the book. (Oh, how our Dan loves his Scotch.) Seagram, it so happens, owns Universal, and by the time Cross Dressing premieres, Fitzhugh may have gotten a piece of the popcorn profits. (Morrow, $24)

Bottom Line: Bit of a drag

>COLTER Rick Bass Subtitled The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had, this fetching tale chronicles the life of the author's German shorthaired pointer. (Houghton Mifflin, $22).

FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE Jacques Barzun Written in delightfully clear, accessible language, this is an engaging and provocative account of 500 years of Western culture, by a masterly historian. (HarperCollins, $36)

CARP FISHING ON VALIUM Graham Parker The acclaimed singer and songwriter has put out a collection of short stories, some dealing with the rock and roll biz. (St. Martin's, $22.95)

  • Contributors:
  • Patrick Rogers,
  • Jean Reynolds,
  • Kyle Smith,
  • Edward Karam,
  • David Cobb Craig.