By Alice Sebold

"In the hours after I was murdered," explains the 14-year-old narrator of this remarkably assured first novel, "as my mother made phone calls and my father began going door to door in the neighborhood looking for me, Mr. Harvey...carried away a sack filled with my body parts." Raped and savagely hacked to pieces, Susie Salmon looks down from heaven and describes what she sees: the killer who ripped her apart and a community ripped apart by her killing.

Because we learn the murderer's identity early on, this is less a mystery than a macabre fictional memoir; both Susie and her family must come to terms with their grief. Sebold, who wrote the rape memoir Lucky, employs a matter-of-fact tone that is the perfect antidote to false sentiments and easy answers. The book brims with such compassion that it becomes a redemptive and hard-earned celebration of the living. (Little, Brown, $21.95)

Bottom Line: Haunting

By Richard Russo

Life is full of surprises for the men and women in Russo's first collection of stories. A boy whose mother virtually kidnaps him for a breathless cross-country journey later learns that her mission was to save him from "the vicious little monster" he was becoming. In the title story, a creative-writing instructor receives a dark, disturbing memoir of sex, sin and betrayal from a student, an elderly nun.

Russo, who wrote this year's Pulitzer Prize winner Empire Falls, has the quiet authority of someone with a valuable story to tell, a story about ordinary people in the extraordinary circumstances we recognize as normal existence. His relaxed, almost conversational style allows him to work his way into the hearts and souls of these compassionately drawn characters. It's an admirable achievement to make these well-crafted and deftly plotted tales seem as unlikely and as plausible as your life. (Knopf, $24)

Bottom Line: Melodious fanfare for the common man

By Iain Pears

Braiding together parallel plots of romance and political intrigue set in Provence during three dark eras—the fall of the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages and World War II—The Dream of Scipio is a murder mystery on the grandest scale.

Yes, barbarians felled Rome, plague devastated the Middle Ages and Nazis exterminated Jews. But Pears (An Instance of the Fingerpost) also investigates how civilizations die by individual acts of evil committed even, or sometimes especially, by the well-meaning. If he sometimes jerks readers from epoch to epoch as if to the tune of an overly frenetic waltz, he also invests his complex story with piquancy, irony and humor. There is much to ponder here, from Neoplatonic philosophy to anti-Semitism to public duty. (Riverhead, $25.95)

Bottom Line: Eye-opening Dream

By Mick Jackson

The World War II-era southern English village in Jackson's absorbing second novel bustles like a hive full of queen bees. With most men at war, the "stay-behinds" and children evacuated from London share a strange existence that Jackson subtly mines for dark humor. A village elder spends nights staring into his telescope—at women in an exercise class. Lonely girls listening for "the clank of tailgates falling open" pin their romantic hopes on American GIs—who are bound for Normandy.

Though freshly written and amusing, these vignettes seem to hang plotless until the arrival of a laconic, fatherly beekeeper who mesmerizes a gang of five boys. That leads to the stings of a murder-and-revenge twist with which Jackson adroitly opens our eyes to the reality of war and death that always lurked nearby. (Morrow, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Good buzz

A Love/Hate Memoir
By Deborah van Rooyen

She is an opinionated art director in Boston, single with one child. He, or "the Captain," as she calls him, is a Boston TV-commercial director, twice divorced. On the Captain's sloop, she is first mate. Not in all senses, though. She wants to be his girlfriend, but, except for their brief flings, he keeps her at arm's length—for 13 years until 1999. Van Rooyen's memoir is fresh and funny and also sad. After the Captain (accidentally?) slams a hatchback door on her nose, her 6-year-old daughter vows, "I'll take care of you, Mommy." (ReganBooks, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Engaging from stem to stern

By Jude Deveraux

Mystery, romance and cooking converge in the latest by perennial best-seller Deveraux. Billionaire James Manville dies in a plane crash, leaving his beloved wife, Lillian, nothing except a rundown farmhouse and a cryptic note alluding to his shady past.

As overweight Lillian, 32, gets a makeover, cooks like a gourmet for her new guy and sleuths James's secret, characters and plot points enter like a chorus line; each time you think everyone is onstage, a few more appear. Reading this is like drinking mai tais: a languidly pleasant experience till the contents make you woozy. (Atria, $25)

Bottom Line: The plot runneth over

By Toby Young
Beach book of the week

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Toby Young swanned into celebrity-choked parties (and was thrown out of them), met beautiful women (who rejected him) and made glamorous friends (who stopped returning his calls). In short, he was the toast of the town: burnt toast, falling to the floor butter side down. He laughs about it all in this memoir of failure, and you will too.

An English journalist living in Manhattan and working at Vanity Fair, Young arrived "wanting to be Cary Grant and ended up as Ralph Bellamy." Low jinks like hiring a stripper at the office on Take Our Daughters to Work Day and drinking like a fish—like a school of fish, like a university of fish—lead to salary reviews (from $10,000 a month to $1,000) and a pink slip. Young is a self-deprecating Tom Wolfe, with a satirical eye for "limo pimps," "Starbucks bohemians" and Coney Island's "atmosphere of almost nuclear desolation." Helpful tips abound. How to crash an Oscar party? Bring a pig on a leash and tell everyone it's the star of Babe. (Da Capo, $24)

Bottom Line: Hilarious lifestyles of the rich and shameless

  • Contributors:
  • Alex Abramovich,
  • Francine Prose,
  • Laura Italiano,
  • Julie K.L. Dam,
  • Andrea Higbie,
  • Annette Gallagher Weisman,
  • Kyle Smith.