Stories of Adoption
Essays by Mary Ann Koenig

The first time Mary Ann Koenig asked about her birth parents, "I saw a look on my [adoptive] mother's face that I'd never seen before," writes Koenig. "Maybe fear, maybe hurt. The story of how I came into the world was a dangerous topic."

Today's parents are more willing to bring adoption into the open, a trend Koenig supports with moving essays culled from interviews with adoptees and birth and adoptive parents, compellingly illustrated with Berg's portraits. Meet Jim Rockwell, who at 60 felt a need to "lay eyes on one living soul whose flesh I am." (He found seven siblings.) And artist Kathryn Shelley, who says trying to imagine her birth mother was like "grabbing smoke—there was nothing to hold on to." Koenig, though, offers plenty. (Running Press, $27.95)

Bottom Line: Thought-provoking look at family ties

by Lois Battle

The small town of Florabama, Ala., is little more than a wide place in the road, but big things are happening to many of the women who live there. In this heart-filled novel—call it Norma Rae meets Steel Magnolias—Cherished Lady, the local mill that makes bras and bustiers, has shut up shop, leaving its female employees jobless, demoralized and low on self-esteem. Enter Bonnie Duke Cullman, an Atlanta belle in her late 40s who has just seen her luxurious lifestyle undone by the reckless financial dealings of her husband, who is divorcing her. She could use some self-esteem herself.

But a new job—her first real one—as a career counselor takes Alabama-born Bonnie from her world of double lattes back to the world of double-wides. Now she gets a chance to help the seamstresses find work even as she works on finding herself: Soon Bonnie is sparking up an affair with an old high school flame and enlisting the ladies in the cottage industry of making children's clothes for a smart big-city boutique. Florabama is an often humorous and well-tailored tale of determined women proving that life can be like an Oreo: The best part is in the middle. (Viking, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Stitched to a fare-thee-well

by Allegra Goodman

Sharon Spiegelman, the narrator of this disappointing novel, spends the 1970s and '80s wandering the Hawaiian islands, dabbling in spiritual movements, drugs and sexual adventures. Sounds pretty juicy, no? Unfortunately, her 20 years of aimlessness stretch across the similarly meandering first two-thirds of the book, pages written with all the depth of a "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" essay. And Sharon, who acts like a petulant teen into her 30s, issues wisecracks that sound as though they were garbled in translation from another language: "Maybe some people think they're buffalo, but when it comes down to it, they don't actually roam." Ouch.

Goodman, author of the National Book Award finalist Kaaterskill Falls, finally finds her way when Sharon converts to orthodox Judaism late in the novel. But too late: The book then abruptly ends—which feels like both a letdown and a godsend. (Dial Press, $24.95)

Bottom Line: A long way from paradise

by James Patterson

Page-turner of the week

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Sick of the old sleuth-plus-sidekick routine? Patterson (Kiss the Girls) doubles the roster in a kickoff to a new series (and the basis for a planned NBC miniseries). 1st to Die gives us four San Francisco women—a homicide inspector, a medical examiner, an assistant D.A. and a reporter—who team up to catch a serial killer. ("Homicide Chicks," one of the quartet suggests for a group nickname. How about something snappier, like the Slice Girls?) True to Patterson's MO, the case is grisly to the max: Someone is murdering newlyweds just hours after they swear to love each other until death do us part. While Patterson sometimes lapses into cliché, his clever twists and affecting subplots—such as a rare blood disease that threatens the life of the central heroine, tough-but-tender cop Lindsay Boxer—keep the pages flying. (Little, Brown, $26.95)

Bottom Line: 2nds, please

By Robert B. Parker

Over the course of 28 Spenser novels, Parker has unleashed some formidable tough guys. There's Spenser himself, of course, detectivedom's most charmingly literate lout, and pal Hawk, who makes Shaft look like a wuss. In a move sure to tickle loyal Spenserians, Potshot adds five memorable supporting characters from earlier books to the mix, including buff gay bartender Tedy Sapp and Chicano sure shot Chollo. The plot, rustled from The Magnificent Seven (itself a replay of Japan's Seven Samurai), sends Spenser and his multicultural mercenaries to aid a southwestern town terrorized by a local gang. One-liners and testosterone flow freely as the seven hole up in a house and, miraculously, get along famously (although Hawk and Sapp have to match each other push-up for pushup). The book isn't Parker's best: Its flabby midsection merely fills the space that sets up the gripping final showdown. But Spenser and his entertaining bunch of second bananas still have plenty of appeal. (Putnam, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Hardly magnificent, but meets recommended daily allowance of machismo

  • Contributors:
  • Kim Hubbard,
  • David Cobb Craig,
  • Laura Jamison,
  • Samantha Miller.