by Eric Bogosian

Everyone's looking for love in the wrong place at the wrong time in this stylishly dark first novel from the award-winning performance artist (Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll) and playwright (Talk Radio).

Mall's cast includes Mal, a 30ish malcontent on crystal meth; a teenage book-loving existentialist; a voyeuristic financial consultant; a sex-hungry housewife shopping at J.C. Penney; and a Haitian security guard—all of whose lives randomly intersect one day at a large shopping mall. The mayhem begins early, after Mal kills his mother and heads for the mall 10 minutes before closing time. His mission, he says, is to "mess with the destiny" of others, starting with his former employer at the tuxedo rental shop. He messes, all right, in quick, cinematic scenes painted with the blood-drenched sensibility of a Quentin Tarantino movie. Hovering helicopters and a taut chase scene bring this violent, edgy study of suburban angst to a graphic climax that has all the immediacy of news-at-11 video. (Simon & Schuster, $23)
Bottom Line: Caustic, seductive and dead-on

La Cucina
by Lily Prior

For an Italian girl living in the early 1900s, la cucina was often more than just a kitchen. For example, it's where 17-year-old Rosa Fiore—the heroine of London author Prior's flavorful first novel—retreats when she's depressed and yearning for culinary catharsis. Cooking her chickpea frittatas and fresh tomato sauces—no recipes provided, alas—Rosa is able to get past anything that saddens or angers her by pouring her heart into her creations. But when her young lover is tragically murdered, no amount of cooking can ease her anguish. Moving to an isolated town to work and to wallow in her misery, she must wait 25 years (and put on about 25 lbs.) to meet someone else who warms her heart: a British researcher who asks her to teach him the secrets of Sicilian cuisine. Soon enough there's another kind of cookin going on. "From the dull spinster librarian, I had suddenly turned into a woman, a real woman," says Rosa. What follows may remind readers of the novel and film Like Water for Chocolate. With a sensuous tone, a folkloric narrative style and a most original set of characters—among them a pair of Siamese twins, a one-eyed landlady and an ex-convict priest—La Cucina could well satisfy the hungriest of appetites. (HarperCollins, $24)

Bottom Line: Succulent saga

Deck the Halls
by Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark

Christmas is looking not so merry for Luke and Nora Reilly. First, Mrs. Reilly trips over a rug and breaks her leg, ruining a planned family trip to Hawaii. Then, while she is recovering in the hospital, Mr. Reilly and his spunky chauffeur Rosita are kidnapped and held for $1 million ransom. What the bad guys don't know, however, is that the Reillys' daughter Regan is a savvy private eye. Enlisting the help of Alvirah Meehan, an amateur detective, Regan sleuths her way to solving the case, but not without encountering a few setbacks along the way. In their first joint effort, the perennially best-selling Mary Higgins Clark (All Through the Night, Before I Say Good-Bye) and daughter Carol Higgins Clark, herself an up-and-coming author {Iced), create a winning detective duo by teaming up favorite characters from their own respective novels. While the plot runs thin—the kidnapping scheme is so poorly planned, Rudolph the red-nosed you-know-what could sniff out the clues—the ho-ho-ho story makes for an entertaining, albeit light, Christmas treat. (Simon & Schuster, $18)

Bottom Line: Dynamic team

My Life as a 10-Year-Old Boy
by Nancy Cartwright

"Do you ever talk like Bart when you're having sex?" That's one of the questions Nancy Cartwright has had to field during her career as the voice of the bratty 10-year-old boy on TV's The Simpsons. (No, she hasn't, and yes, Bart is given voice by a girl.) Cartwright's autobiography also reveals how much work she puts in on each episode (about six hours), who the fussiest guest stars were (Elizabeth Taylor and Kirk Douglas) and how each show gets made (it's a labor-intensive process). We never learn why Bart has only four digits on his hand, but we do find out how many spikes he has on his mischievous little head (nine). (Hyperion, $19.95)

Bottom Line: For die-hard fans only

Julie and Romeo
by Jeanne Ray

It's a pretty cornball idea, recasting Shakespeare's tragedy as a tale of two 60ish florists. But in the hands of first-time novelist Ray, a Nashville nurse whose daughter is the novelist Ann Patchett, it works amazingly well. Romeo Cacciamani and Julie Roseman meet at a Boston conference on making small businesses thrive. Since each of their Somerville, Mass., flower shops is failing and their extended families have been feuding—for reasons no one can remember—since time immemorial, they have plenty to talk about. They fall passionately in love, infuriating their respective offspring and setting in motion a captivating comic romp.

This isn't a novel to be read for its keep-you-guessing plot. (Competing florists who find they adore each other, not enough business in town for them both—hmm...what could possibly happen?) What started the family feud, a secret revealed in the end by Romeo's 90-year-old mother, does come as a surprise, but it's getting there that's the fun. Wise, winsome and refreshingly optimistic about late-in-life love, Julie and Romeo does the Bard proud. (Harmony, $21)
Bottom Line: Delightful riff on Shakespeare's classic

The Third Option
by Vince Flynn

Page-turner of the week

Moving at the speed of a Stinger missile, Flynn's conspiracy-drenched thriller might be subtitled When Bad Things Happen to Good Assassins. Mitch Rapp, a former Navy SEAL, is the CIA expert called in when diplomacy and military action are impractical or they fail, necessitating a "third option." Sent to Germany to bump off a plutocrat who's selling nuclear hardware to Iraq, Mitch is betrayed by his associates, shot and left to die in a fire. But this triathlete, nicknamed Iron Man, escapes the flames and begins a hunt for his attackers.

Flynn crosscuts the action swiftly, as Mitch's handlers try to track him, power-hungry politicians jockey for power and the turncoats cover their tracks. When the hit men kidnap Mitch's girlfriend, you know they're in for it. Moralists may squirm at the notion of murder as a necessary tool of government, and conservatives will smile smugly at the rabid Democratic congressman who wants to curb the friendly spooks. But Flynn's detail is impressive: Ordnance references (Stoner SR-25 assault rifle; Heckler & Koch HK4 pistol) suggest that he either spent hours perusing Jane's Infantry Weapons or could possibly have done some professional lurking himself. (Pocket, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Thriller with deadly aim

  • Contributors:
  • Robert Allen Papinchak,
  • Jennifer Wulff,
  • David Cobb Craig,
  • Kim Hubbard,
  • Edward Karam.