by Laura Catherine Brown

For Mandy Boyle, getting into Albany State University represents a hard-won liberation, not only from her dead-end Upstate New York hometown but from her mother's stifling presence and their family's humiliating status as a church charity case. But the death of Mandy's beloved father throws the self-possessed student into a tailspin and makes her question her goals.

In this impressive debut novel, Brown explores a young woman's emotional upheavals with sincerity and grace. Mandy's almost predictable plunge into a relationship with a slightly older guy—and the painful consequences of that development—are sensitively and credibly rendered. And yet Quickening lacks tear-inducing power; the depictions of the minutiae of Mandy's inner turmoil ultimately feel workmanlike and repetitive. Still, Brown is a talent to watch. (Random House, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Strong first effort

by Karen Stolz

There's no mistaking Roxanne Milner for a city girl. The narrator of this slim charming novel calls Annette, Texas—her provincial home—"a town small enough to know everybody, big enough to pretend we didn't when we needed."

Not that she ever has that need. In the sunny Annette quaintly sketched here by first-time author Stolz (herself a small-town native), Roxanne's youth in the elsewhere turbulent late '60s and '70s is marked by a mundane succession of best friends, beaux and chocolate milk shakes at Doreen's Drugstore. Mind you, some turmoil does come to town: When Roxanne is 15, her mother has an unplanned baby and her beloved first cousin Tommy returns from the Vietnam War a drug addict, having lost both an arm and his direction in life.

But all the bumps on that dusty country road get smoothed over with generous helpings of homemade desserts—hence the title of the book, which laces its chapters with mouthwatering recipes. And though Roxanne expresses a curiosity about life beyond Annette—she takes a job at a motel in the hopes of meeting people who "would know the world" and even goes away to college—she doesn't stay away long. She returns to raise her daughter, surrounded by family and, of course, pies. It gives new meaning to the phrase "Home, sweet home." (Hyperion, $18.95)

Bottom Line: Lighter than meringue

by Kathy Reichs

Gone are those easy-riding days when motorcyclists' biggest worries were cops out to hassle them. Now they're into deadly turf wars over Montreal's lucrative drug trade, a battle that is decimating their ranks as Reichs's third thriller opens. And caught smack in the crossfire is her sharp-as-a-scalpel heroine, consulting forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan, who can tease important clues from the tiniest bits of bone. At first Brennan's involvement is strictly professional. But as the action quickens, the stakes turn personal indeed, and solving the central mystery becomes a matter of life and death for Brennan and one of her nearest and dearest.

Not surprisingly, Reichs's strong suit once again is her expertise as a real-life forensic specialist. One wishes she had devoted the same attention to the plot—which relies too much on coincidence—and to weaning herself from stylistic crutches such as repetitious physical descriptions. (Enough already with the comparisons between Brennan's coiffure and the effects of a Weedwacker.) But despite such minor distractions, odds are you'll find yourself fascinated by the peek Reichs offers into the surprising stories told by dead men—and women. (Scribner, $25)

Bottom Line: High-octane forensic thriller hits a few potholes

by Alice Hoffman

Tall, gangly Gus Pierce, a misfit at Massachusetts's tony Haddan School, is found drowned, and most students assume that Pierce's housemates' vicious hazing drove him to suicide. The coroner determines otherwise, and a burned-out cop sets out to find the truth. In her 13th novel, Hoffman (Here on Earth, Practical Magic) once again demonstrates her compassion for the world's walking wounded along with a penchant for the supernatural. At her bidding, animals and even the weather behave perversely: A cold black rain filled with algae pours down on Haddan, and Carlin, Gus's only friend, starts wrapping herself in his old coat, only to find silvery minnows swimming in the pockets. Hoffman's magic realism fits well in this setting—after all, the tale unfolds in the same state that hosted witchcraft trials way back when. (Putnam, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Flows mightily

by Patti Mitchell and the Leap Foundation

A fire-breathing dragon guarding a medieval castle. A reasonable facsimile of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. A beached mermaid. These are not your average sandcastles. They're works of astonishing, if transient, art that can be created by almost anyone with the patience, the tools—nothing exotic, just beach pails, shovels, a watering can—and access to a nice, sandy beach. Each one comes with instructions, and each is a marvel of sand sculpting—and photography. For the beginner (or the beginner's kid) there's an introductory chapter that covers the basics, from the drip to the pancake to the brick methods. Read that, assemble the necessary tools, and head for the beach. under four chapter headings—"All Castles Great and Small," "Creatures of the Deep," "Beachmobiles" and "Everything Else Under the Sun" (my favorite here: Sundial by the Sea, which can actually tell time)—are enough ideas to fill a whole summer. And—so you'll only have to shell out once—the pages, spiral-bound for easy viewing, are also water-repellent. This book isn't just for kids; in fact the dragon's fire is created by using lighter fluid. And some of the sculptures are undoubtedly too complicated and time-consuming for all but budding Frank Lloyd Wrights. But in its own way, Sandcastles may be the best beach book of the summer. (Chronicle, $14.95)

Bottom Line: Don't forget the sunblock

by Penn Williamson

Beach book of the week

New Orleans never forgets. At least that's the way it looks to Det. Damon Rourke in the fall of 1927 as he starts to investigate one of the most sensational homicides his hometown has ever seen. But the deeper Rourke delves into the murder of lawyer Charles St. Claire—scion of a prominent Cajun clan and creep nonpareil—the more convinced he becomes that secrets are never truly buried but instead merely tucked away, only to be unexpectedly disinterred at inopportune moments.

And more than a few pieces of Rourke's own dirty linen threaten to be bared by l'affaire St. Claire. For starters there's prime suspect Remy Lelourie, luminous screen star and the victim's recent bride—as well as the first love Rourke I never got over. Then there's Casey Maguire, a cutthroat bootlegger—and childhood buddy of the detective's. And even Rourke's own ma...well, our lips are sealed.

Although new to the mystery genre, Williamson—who has previously written historical romances under the pen name Penelope Williamson—skillfully unfurls her plot for maximal chills. She also weaves in plenty of spicy love scenes, intriguing subplots and Jazz Age atmosphere. Despite prose that occasionally turns as sultry as an August night on Bourbon Street, Mortal Sins offers a tempting gumbo of guilty pleasures. (Warner, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Steamy suspense in the Big Sleazy

>JIM THE BOY Tony Earley Using words like "daggummit," the author, a North Carolina native, gives heaps of Dixie detail to this coming-of-age novel set in the Tar Heel State. (Little, Brown, $23.95)

ROSA PARKS Douglas Brinkley

The defiant act of a not-so-demure seamstress—refusing to give up her bus seat for a white man in 1955—is at the heart of this thorough and exemplary biography. (Viking, $19.95)

THE FIRST PAPER GIRL IN RED OAK, IOWA Elizabeth Stuckey-French The Florida-based author shows a flair for off-the-wall detail in a short-story collection peopled with motley Midwesterners. (Doubleday, $22)

  • Contributors:
  • Lan N. Nguyen,
  • Julie K.L. Dam,
  • Pam Lambert,
  • Jean Reynolds,
  • Mike Neill.