By Dana Spiotta

Bored lust and self-disgust drive this satirical and stylishly written first novel by a young author who clearly considers Joan Didion and Don DeLillo her literary ancestors. Like them, Spiotta doesn't bother with plot; she renders a Los Angeles choking on irony, consumer excess and spiritual emptiness. The three women characters move through their lives in a slow-motion fugue: Mina Delano, for instance, the wife of a screenwriter, is committing double adulteries, one of them with her husband's best friend, Max—a rake who videotapes their trysts. She and her best friend, Lorene, go looking for Mina's brother, who walked out of a mental hospital. The road trip feels forced, but the novel is pitch-perfect as a character study and parody of ennui in Gucci gulch. (Scribner, $23)

Bottom Line: Smart and snarky

By Sally Beauman

You don't need to have read Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca or even to have seen Hitchcock's classic film to follow this sequel. All you need is patience. Told in exhaustive detail by four characters, including Rebecca de Winter (checking in from the great beyond), Rebecca's Tale takes us back to Manderley, the spooky estate where Maxim de Winter is obsessed with his dead wife. Was Rebecca's death a suicide? Murder? Or is she really still alive? New characters are insipid compared with the original's sinister Mrs. Danvers and the arctic Maxim, and Beauman can't match du Maurier's lyricism. Diehard romantics may enjoy this meandering saga, but Rebecca purists will be as unamused as Mrs. Danvers. (Morrow, $25)

Bottom Line: Dud on arrival

By Colin Escott and Kira Florita

Certain musical artists—Sinatra, Cole Porter, Charlie Parker—never lose their relevance or their resonance. Country music's timeless prince has always been Hank Williams, and this illuminating 200-page book, jammed with 300 photos, goes far in celebrating his extraordinary but tragically brief life.

Born in Mount Olive West, Ala., in 1923, Williams, driven by an ambitious mother and an even more ambitious first wife, was country's original crossover star. Debilitated by alcoholism, Williams died under still mysterious circumstances while being driven to a gig in Canton, Ohio, on Jan. 1, 1953. He was 29.

This is a mountain of material, much of it previously unpublished, including hand-scrawled lyrics of 30 unpublished original Williams songs. There are poignant letters to Williams from his publisher and producer Fred Rose that beg him to stop drinking, and the photos, many of them snapshots, are a revelation. The images are often murky, but that is the price of being able to find out so much more about this troubled trailblazer. (Da Capo Press, $35)

Bottom Line: Engrossing celebration of Nashville's Gershwin

By Jennifer Egan

This satire of skin-deep culture cuts to the bone. In Egan's second novel characters hawk their private lives on the Internet, and a fashion photographer becomes famous by slashing his models' faces.

At the heart of this strange but strangely familiar world are two Charlottes. One is an aging model whose career ends when her face must be reconstructed after a car crash; the other is a sullen teen, the daughter of the model's old friend, who initiates an affair with a mysterious high school math teacher.

Except for a terrorist subplot, Look at Me—a finalist for this year's National Book Award—is an imaginative, well-paced read with serious questions about the elusiveness of meaning inside the gilded cage. Egan, an ex-model herself, has intelligence to burn but plenty of feeling too. (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Style and substance

By Lawrence Block

Page-turner of the week

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Rogue shamus Matt Scudder is back after a three-year absence, middle-aged and mellower than usual for this ex-cop and recovering alcoholic with a streak of self-pity. But his razor-sharp instincts are still intact.

Haunted by the death of his first wife and his estrangement from his two grown sons, Scudder jumps at the chance to investigate the grisly double murder of a rich Manhattan couple, Bryne and Susan Hollander. Within days cops find the culprits dead in an apparent murder-suicide. Case closed. Then Scudder's street-smart, computer-savvy sidekick TJ introduces the detective to a woman who thinks the couple's beautiful daughter—and heir to their fortune—may know more about the killings than she lets on. Case reopened.

In his 15th appearance since his 1976 debut, Block's gumshoe feels as well-worn as your favorite slippers. Happily, though, Hope to Die is more than a showcase for how well Scudder handles his noir during his silver years. At 62 and remarried, the unlicensed P.I. is now a sober, reflective observer of the human condition. He can still thrill you with his sense for a clue, and the mystery unspools tantalizingly in smoky bars and dingy police precincts while resourceful crooks go to work on gullible victims. Block relishes backing us into the darkest, most frightening corners of the mind throughout a goose-bumpy journey that makes it all but impossible for you to bail out until the terrible, twisted end. (Morrow, $25)

Bottom Line: Chip off the old Block

By Carolyn Wyman

You may not agree with junk food expert Wyman (an authority on Spam) when she ranks Jell-O beside Coca-Cola and apple pie as a definitive American treat, but her volume about the jiggly dessert some call "nervous pudding" is as colorful and lightweight as the stuff it celebrates. Here is a surprisingly funny array of Americana, kitsch and trivia—as a teen, John Malkovich lost 70 lbs. on a Jell-O-only diet. Sharing the plate, though, are the darker sides of Jell-O: the bikini wrestlers, the frat-house shooters, its tenuous connection to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and, yes, as rumored in the schoolyard, ingredients that include pig bones and hide. Jell-O was once satirized with the defeatist-sounding slogan, "If it was there, you'd eat it"; the book fits the same mold. (Harcourt, $15)

Bottom Line: Junk food for thought

By Allen Morris Jones

Romeo and Juliet on a Wyoming ranch? The setup sounds like a bad TV movie, but Jones's first novel is keenly felt and powerfully told.

Debutante Virginia Price, a headstrong rich girl in New York City in the 1920s, becomes pregnant after she is raped on a date with Charlie, a slick society boy. Instead of sympathy, the girl encounters disgrace. "You've made me glad my husband is dead," her mother says before banishing her to the West with a grumpy great-aunt.

Virginia soon finds herself drawn to the rancher's son Henry, a laconic half Native American cowhand returned from the trenches of World War I. Scarred as much by his battles with his father as with the German army, Henry turns to his fellow outcast. But when Charlie turns up to marry Virginia, propriety conspires to push Henry and Virginia apart. With prose as austere as the plains, Jones's gut-wrenching love story takes us on an action-packed ride of longing, betrayal, regret, and redemption. (Houghton Mifflin, $24)

Bottom Line: Saddle up

  • Contributors:
  • Christina Cheakalos,
  • Annette Gallagher Weisman,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Michelle Vellucci,
  • Cathy Burke,
  • Mark O'Donnell,
  • Lori Gottlieb.