by Mike Gayle

Gayle's second novel, a bestseller in the U.K., mines the same vein as Nick Hornby's High Fidelity and finds just as much comedy gold. This one centers on Benjamin Duffy, a struggling London stand-up comic forced to get serious about longtime girlfriend Mel when she shocks him by: a) switching off his Star Trek rerun; and b) asking him to marry her. Duffy's pub buddies, who seem to be on loan from the cast of Notting Hill, argue that action heroes are always single ("Han Solo, I ask you"), but Duffy gets engaged and is soon hurtling into a color-coordinated abyss. Cue the breakup, the wry soul-searching and the bumping into the new boyfriend. Predictable? So is Christmas. Duffy, sweetly funny as he grows wise beyond his fears, is an inaction hero. (Doubleday, $22.95)

Bottom Line: Gayles of laughter

by Jay Bakker with Linden Gross

Televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (now Messner), 61 and 58 respectively, have generally been portrayed in the media as stick-figure jokes or villains. In this memoir their son Jay, 25—a pastor whose own ministry, Revolution, targets what he calls "punks, skaters and hippies"—attempts to rehabilitate his parents' image. He proclaims Jim innocent of his 1989 fraud conviction, blames others—Jerry Falwell, in particular—for his parents' ruination and repeatedly describes his father's dalliance with Jessica Hahn as "a fifteen-minute affair," as if that excuses it. Even worse are Bakker's cliché-ridden takes on his bout with alcoholism and his spiritual struggles. "I could have given up," he writes of one religious crisis, "but Jesus found me." Well, that was convenient. (HarperSanFrancisco, $23)

Bottom Line: An unholy mess

by Sallie Bissell

The pressure builds steadily through the early chapters of this taut debut. Atlanta prosecutor Mary Crow has just convicted her sixth murderer and heads to the mountainous forests of her childhood with her two best girlfriends from law school—New Yorker Joan, who gripes about the outdoors, and Alex, a Texas beauty who's quietly worried about Mary's first visit home since the unsolved rape and murder of her mother 12 years earlier. Hot on their trail, though, is the vengeful brother of the man Mary just sent to jail. But the forest holds even greater terrors, and it is the women's journey of survival—with Mary as both hunter and prey—that propels this solid page-turner. (Bantam, $21.95)

Bottom Line: Top-notch thriller

by Luanne Rice

It's drought season in Wyoming, but the withered landscape doesn't compare to the parched hearts in Rice's latest novel. Thirteen years ago rancher James Tucker's 3-year-old son Jake disappeared on a cattle drive. Torn apart by grief, his wife, Daisy, fled the ranch with Jake's twin sister, Sage. When a teenage Sage goes missing, Daisy and James must confront both their long-buried pain and a new threat: a killer out for revenge. Rice has more success with the romance than the mystery; the plot twists feel forced. But her evocative imagery makes such flaws easy to overlook. One warning: The scenes of mother cows howling as their calves are led to market may swear you off burgers forever. (Bantam, $21.95)

Bottom Line: Fierce family drama

>THE KILL ARTIST Daniel Silva The author uses his expertise as a former Middle East correspondent to concoct a heart-pounding thriller about an ex-Israeli intelligence agent and the assassination plot he must thwart. (Random House, $25.95)

BALD IN THE LAND OF BIG HAIR Joni Rodgers This candid and amusing memoir recounts Rodgers's difficult cancer battle, including her wittily rendered search for a wig that won't make her look like the Flintstones' Betty Rubble. (HarperCollins, $24)

THE OTHER GREAT DEPRESSION Richard Lewis For the comic star of TV's Anything but Love, life has been anything but funny; in this mordant book he details struggles with his "million addictions." (PublicAffairs, $23)

  • Contributors:
  • Kyle Smith,
  • Dan Jewel,
  • Anne Moore,
  • Cynthia Sanz.