by David Thomson

Glamor, sex, danger. Laughter, tears, screams. No single word can paint as many pictures as Hollywood. From Mae West to Mena Suvari, Tom Mix to Tom Hanks, every one of these classic, beautifully reproduced images—nearly a thousand in all—will have you reaching for your Blockbuster card. There are eye-openers from early cinema—Mack Sennett's Bathing Beauties seem a good 50 lbs. plumper than today's starlets—and a roundup of all the usual suspects from Casablanca to The Usual Suspects. Thomson provides a handful of short, insightful essays and perfunctory captions, but the focus is on the images. This is not one of those warts-and-all deals. The pictures are shimmering publicity portraits, movie stills and poster art. Many choices are obvious (has anyone not seen Marilyn's skirt taking wing or Travolta on the dance floor?), but for anyone whose heart skips every time the houselights dim, this is a catalog of the dream factory. (DK, $50)

Bottom Line: Hooray for Hollywood

by Sebastian Faulks

Charlie van der Linden, a dejected career man with the British embassy in a Washington abuzz with the rise of Sen. John Kennedy in 1960, drinks too much because he has seen too much. His wife, Mary, is the picture of the dutiful English bride. Yet with her children at boarding school, something is missing. She takes an American lover, a journalist and veteran haunted by memories of Guadalcanal who needs Mary to feel whole again. Charlie, too, sees her as his best chance for redemption.

If the love affair feels flat, fans of Faulks—whose Charlotte Gray has just been released as a film—will find plenty of period atmosphere on which to hang their snap-brimmed fedoras. (Random House, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Cold War love triangle needs more warmth

by Elmore Leonard

Stunt diver Dennis Lenahan is standing on a platform 80 ft. above his water tank outside a casino in Tishomingo, Miss., when he sees a laborer get shot by two guys on the ground. The only other witness is a flashy, blues-loving, Jaguar-driving dude from Detroit (Don Cheadle, call your agent) who helps him stay alive but may be using Dennis for his own ends.

After 36 novels, including Get Shorty and Out of Sight, the pope of pulp is still keeping his cast busy with the usual snitch decommissioning, corpse disposal and drug empire consolidation. Leonard's dialogue is crisp and salty, but so is a bag of potato chips. The empty calories bloat the book's midsection to set up a payoff that doesn't: a kitschy Civil War battle reenactment to which bad and badder guys secretly bring real ammo. The battle plays out with all of the thrills and chills of a checkers game. A washed-up ex-baseball pitcher who talks incessantly about the time he came out of the bullpen in the World Series is Leonard's comedy reliever, but the gag starts thin and tapers off. (Morrow, $25.95)

Bottom Line: The thrill is gone

by Sue Monk Kidd

Don't be put off by the bumblebee logos or the tiresome tidbits from insect fact books (wow, bees aren't so different from you and me!) that begin each chapter. Populated with rich, believable characters and propelled by a swiftly paced plot, this debut novel is a cut above most coming-of-age tales. Its heroine: Lily Owens, a white 14-year-old growing up in 1960s rural South Carolina with her cruel farmer father and a kind African-American servant named Rosaleen, who moved in to raise her after Lily's mother died a decade earlier. Lily's quest: to learn the truth about her mother's life and death. She succeeds, improbably enough, by running away from home with Rosaleen and moving into a Pepto Bismol-pink house owned by three black bee-farming sisters named May, June and August. Lily's father ultimately finds her, but not (as befits the genre) before she has found herself. You'll be glad you went along for the ride. (Viking, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Buzz-worthy

by Amanda Craig

Once upon a time in a place called London, there was an out-of-work actor named Benedick whose wife left him for a man of means. As Benedick drearily packed his things, he found a book of fairy tales written by his mother, Laura, an artist who killed herself when Benedick was 6.

So begins our hero's quest. The stories lead Benedick to his mother's birthplace in South Carolina, where he hopes to learn more.

In a sly blend of southern gothic and British wit, Craig weaves Benedick's neuroses with Laura's eerie fairy tales for a story that is both whimsical and unsettling. Her poetic, droll writing whisks the reader along towards a shocking denouement. (Nan A. Talese/Double-day, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Dark delight

by Bruce Wagner

Tull ("born Toulouse," writes Wagner) is a wealthy L.A. boy searching for his long-lost father. What he finds instead is a bewitching orphaned girl, and soon he's convinced that the mystery of his father can be solved in the girl's Olivia Twist world of gutters and squats.

Screenwriter-novelist Wagner's competing mythologies of millennial California mesh with the precision of gold-plated gears in a luxury timepiece. Up-to-the-minute cultural allusions—including mentions of A Beautiful Mind and anthrax paranoia—complement a vision that is rich with comic plot threads and a brash authorial voice but also tinged with melancholy. At its core this is a sincere exploration of life, death and immortality. (Villard, $25.95)

Bottom Line: Do not pass Go

by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith

Page-turner of the week

With its dim view of Texas politics, this isn't the thriller to tote to your next White House dinner. But readers with a taste for tough-minded heroines—and a ten-gallon sense of humor about the Lone Star State—should be pleased to meet Poppy Rice. Introduced as a supporting player in Tirone Smith's first foray into crime, 1998's An American Killing, the crack FBI crime lab director has asked for a reassignment to get back into action. She finds plenty when she reinvestigates the case of Rona Leigh Glueck, a convicted ax murderer who claims to have found God while awaiting lethal injection on Texas's death row. (She's closely based on Karla Faye Tucker, whose 1998 execution sparked a furor.) Poppy seems on her way to proving Glueck innocent—until a midpoint plot twist turns this potentially predictable tale into something more interesting. The true revelation, however, is pushy, profane Poppy, who winds up with two enviable accessories: a $650 pair of cowboy boots and a strapping Texas Ranger. (Holt, $25)

Bottom Line: One tough G-woman

  • Contributors:
  • Daniel Radosh,
  • Peter Hyman,
  • Kyle Smith,
  • Kim Hubbard,
  • Michelle Vellucci,
  • Samantha Miller.