By John Scott Shepherd

Henry Chase is a bad, bad man. Blame his senior prom. Rebuffed by Ms. Perfect on the big night, the sensitive boy chooses a career in destruction. College buddies, business partners and married women fall prey to the wicked deeds of horrible Hank, nicknamed the Assassin at his investment firm, where he gleefully humiliates subordinates. Ah, but wait. Cue the inevitable moment of enlightenment, that magic scene when Wall Street becomes It's a Wonderful Life: Henry realizes he must right his wrongs to save his soul.

Unfortunately, Henry is hard to care about before or after his epiphany. Shepherd, a hot screenwriter who has sold seven scripts and this first novel to Hollywood, aims to be smart-alecky with a message, but the moral drowns in a puddle of sap and only the stilted dialogue is laughable. "I want you to know the devil's a used car salesman," Henry says, "and you never get blue book for your soul." Yeah, people talk like that. Put it this way: If Henry wrote this book, he'd have to add it to his hit list. (Rugged Land, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Shallow Hal

By Jean M. Auel

Archeology plus romance equals this long-awaited fifth novel of Auel's Earth's Children series, which debuted with Clan of the Cave Bear (1980) but has been in hibernation for 12 years. This time the hot young prehistoric couple, sultry Ayla and rugged Jondalar, return to Jondalar's tribe to be mated and live happily ever after. Instead they find difficult in-laws, stubborn jealousies and ceremonies to fuss over. Not much has changed since the Ice Age.

Auel uses her fiction to peer into daily prehistoric life, so interspersed among love scenes are descriptive passages on spears, basket making and the latest in cave fashion. Our cave-dwelling ancestors—Auel has them speak contemporary English—apparently played games and gambled, gossiped and cried and drank lots of herbal tea. That's informative but not nearly as much fun as The Flintstones. The story is thin and the cast so distended—there are 86 characters—that few will make it to the end. Ayla and Jondalar's saga would have been a breeze at 300 pages, but unfortunately for readers and forests alike, Auel allows it to bloat to more than 700. (Crown, $28.95)

Bottom Line: Gimme less Shelters

By Kathryn Harrison

Anchorage, 1915. Winter nights can last 20 hours and the general store accepts payment in gold (flake and nugget). A government weather researcher, 26-year-old Bigelow, "records ephemera" with the huge box kite he builds to gather atmospheric data.

Socially those nights seem even longer until Bigelow glimpses a Native woman known only as the Aleut. She doesn't speak, or can't. Bigelow follows her home and insinuates himself into her routine and her bed. Months later he arrives at her house and finds it empty, with no explanation. Other women merely underscore "his enslavement to a person who has gone, left, disappeared."

This odd, mesmerizing tale is dizzying in intensity; its startling story twists are borne along by prose as austere and powerful as Alaska's icescape. The novel's undertow of anguish will resonate with anyone who has tried to make sense of desire. (Random House, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Chilled to perfection

By Daniel Silva

This international thriller has a gripping start, a jumpy middle and a satisfactory, if quiet, conclusion. Too bad it's missing a climax.

Israeli agent and art restorer Gabriel Allon, on a mission involving Swiss banks that laundered Nazi plunder, arrives in Zurich to restore a Raphael for a Swiss banker, Augustus Rolfe. But Rolfe is dead. This sets Allon hopscotching, often confusingly, around Europe in chapters as short as one page. Allon must catch the killer before he does his next job, on Rolfe's violinist daughter.

Curiously, Allon, a ruthless operative, gets tummy troubles when he shoots people, and the assassin's bizarre choice at the moment of truth is never explained. Silva wants to be the next Frederick Forsyth or John Le Carré, but he's literally all over the map. (Putnam, $25.95)

Bottom Line: Swiss cheese for a plot

By Maya Angelou

It's the sixth in a series of memoirs that began with her bestselling I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969, so perhaps Angelou, 74, has simply tired of her own life story. Whatever the reason, this slim volume, set between 1964 and 1968, feels hastily assembled.

The events described are hardly dull: After a sojourn in Ghana, Angelou returns to the U.S. to work with Malcolm X. When he is assassinated, she moves to Hawaii to sing in a nightclub, then hones her writing in L.A. and New York City. She is about to take a job with Martin Luther King Jr. when he, too, is murdered.

The book has its moments—the author's friendship with writer James Baldwin, for instance, is warmly evoked—but Angelou's subdued emotions deflate the era. Still, there is poetry here. Of an L.A. bungalow she longs to occupy, she writes, "Its absolute Tightness of place would spill over and the ragged edges of my life would become neat to match the house." That's the music of Caged Bird. (Random House, $22.95)

Bottom Line: Off-key

By T. Jefferson Parker
Page-turner of the week

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Sgt. Merci Rayborn carries a lot of baggage, which she likes to slam on people's toes. In this third novel (following The Blue Hour and Red Light) tracking her life as a California detective, she comes to terms with her actions in Red Light, in which she blew the whistle on tainted cops including her father and even, mistakenly, her boyfriend. Here Rayborn investigates an amnesiac officer, Archie Wildcraft, who may have killed his wife and botched his suicide. While the recovering Archie struggles to pull his memory from the "black water" where it lurks, higher-ups press for a quick resolution that will keep remaining police dirt safely under the rug. But Merci is none too eager to nail a cop wrongly again.

Readers may find that a subplot involving the bioengineering of medicine from snake venom lacks bite, and there are awkward overtones of Ghost when Archie's wife speaks from beyond.

The plot is most engaging in personal moments, as when Parker evokes the effects of crime on Archie's parents, and tough-talking Merci is so perversely I enjoyable that Parker J could probably spin his color-coded series all the way to vermilion. (Hyperion, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Dive In

  • Contributors:
  • Joe Heim,
  • Joyce Cohen,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Kim Hubbard,
  • Edward Karam.