By Barbara Delinsky

In the 14 years since she arrived in Lake Henry, N.H., Heather Malone has established a reputation as a devoted friend, nurturing caregiver, gifted businesswoman and loving partner to the man who runs the town's maple sugaring operation. Things get really sticky for her, though, when FBI agents appear and lead her away in handcuffs, claiming she is a fugitive murderer who fled a California hit-and-run 15 years earlier.

In an ignore-the-past-at-your-peril tale that revisits the setting of Delinsky's 1999 novel Lake News, brisk action almost makes up for thin characters: Poppy is tormented by a past that never seems torment-worthy; her boyfriend Griffin is too handsome, kind and rich to be true. The twisty plot and icy late-winter backdrop, though, will keep you chilling on a hot afternoon. (Simon & Schuster, $25)

Bottom Line: Sweet but not sappy

By E. Lynn Harris

Okay, Harris fans, keep up: Back for Harris's eighth novel is that fine, bisexual, ex-jock-turned-sports-agent John Basil Henderson, as well as the diva he dumped at the altar, Yancey Braxton. Openly gay lawyer Raymond Winston Tyler Jr. also returns (sharing Love's narrating duties with magazine editor Zola Denise Norwood). True to form, Harris keeps the sex, scandal and drama churning, but here, too, are references to such somber events as pop star Aaliyah's plane crash and the events of Sept. 11.

The result is an earnest, disjointed story with great Manhattan props but poor staging. Harris nails the settings (Le Bernardin for a business lunch, the Shark Bar for a late drink) and he drops Ivy League credentials for effect (Columbia Law and Harvard Business School), but the central plot, a libel suit against Zola's magazine, doesn't kick in until the middle of the book. Instead the story jumps haphazardly among characters' troubled relationships and individual crises: Raymond is betrayed by his lover; Basil discovers he has a child; Zola learns ambition isn't everything.

Like Harris's earlier novels, A Love of My Own is an entertaining confection. This time it's like cotton candy: sweet and addictive but also a bit messy. (Doubleday, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Love's labors lost and found

By Sharon Wyse

If only Oprah hadn't canceled her book club, this debut novel surely would have made her face light up. Like many of Oprah's picks, this baleful, slight (186 page) tale explores themes of childhood abuse and self-esteem through the eyes of a female narrator.

Growing up on a Texas farm, 11-year-old Lou Ann Campbell has a cruel, alcoholic mother and a father with a wandering eye. To keep her company, Lou Ann has five dolls—the "children" of the title—each one named after a baby her mother has miscarried. Despite the bleak subject matter, Wyse excels at capturing Lou Ann's hopeful spirit and precocious (but not overly so) voice. "It's true that our family is better than most," she observes. "We have a mother, a daddy and two children: one boy, one girl. We are all smart but not too smart for our own good." Wry and heartfelt, this is a quietly impressive debut. (Riverhead, $18.95)

Bottom Line: Open this Box

By Bob Willoughby

First hired to take photos of Audrey Hepburn for Paramount Studios in 1953, Harper's Bazaar magazine photographer Bob Willoughby became distracted by his own subject. Even while setting up his equipment, he found his eyes constantly "drifting back to that face." That face is what Willoughby, hired as the still photographer for many of the star's films, portrays best in this stunning collection. While some images aren't terribly different from what we've seen onscreen, the moments he catches when the movie cameras aren't rolling reveal a glimpse of Hepburn's own character. No, she's not a raging diva, stomping her teensy feet at too many sugar lumps in her tea. While she comes across as a studious actress, often seen intensely discussing scenes with directors, her "laser-beam smile that could curl my toes," as the author puts it, is rarely off duty. While her personal life suffered setbacks in the 13-year period that Willoughby knew her—she endured miscarriages as well as a divorce from actor Mel Ferrer—work was clearly a welcome escape. Whether her hair is being teased harder than a fat kid at recess as she's transformed into My Fair Lady's gritty flower girl or she's bicycling around a studio lot with her pet Yorkie in a basket, Hepburn glows here brighter than ever. (Vision On, $29.95)

Bottom Line: Isn't she loverly

On the Brink of Armageddon
By Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins

As inevitable as Judgment Day, the Left Behind series continues with this 10th novel to fictionalize the New Testament Apocalypse. (The ninth, Desecration, was the bestselling novel of 2001.) After the Rapture takes the saved to heaven, the unlucky folks left behind on Earth are in for more tribulation than a Chicago Cubs fan: the rise of the Antichrist, plagues and general wrath-of-God action leading up to the return of Jesus.

How normal folks would deal with seas turning to blood or the mark of the Beast remains to be seen; The Remnant's characters may have souls of purest good or evil, but their hearts are cardboard and their dialogue is wooden. The righteous, except for superficial ethnic and gender variations, are all essentially the same, praising God and passing the ammunition; tin-eared dialogue doesn't help, especially considering that nearly every scene is almost entirely reduced to talking, with minimal description. Overall, there is a childish, told-you-so tone—reinforced by the sub-B-movie cacklings of the Antichrist, Nicolae Carpathia, and predictable interventions by angels at opportune moments. Rather than inspiring the spirit, The Remnant comes off as a petulant sermon. (Tyndale House, $24.99)

Bottom Line: Apocalypse no

By William Shatner with Chip Walter

Putting the science back in science fiction, Shatner informs us that the idea for this exploration of how gee-whiz technology could radically alter our existence arrived courtesy of Stephen Hawking. Upon visiting the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the eminent astrophysicist inspected the ship's "warp drive" and remarked, "I'm working on that."

Though a hero to Nerd Nation, Shatner prides himself on being an average guy: He admits having problems operating his remote-controlled house lights and even his TV clicker. As our narrator, he's impressed and baffled as scientists explain immortality research, prospects for real time travel and why "beaming up" would be more complicated in the real world than it is for Captain Kirk. This is the perfect guide to all the ideas you thought only nerds could understand. (Pocket, $25)

Bottom Line: Boldly go read it

By Diane Mott Davidson

Crime-solving chef Goldy Schulz has a lot on her plate: a booming business, a sullen teenaged son, a new assistant with family issues. Oh, and after she caters an event for conspicuous consumers at the local mall, a two-timing bachelor is murdered with one of her knives.

Davidson's bestselling culinary mystery, the 11th in a series, simmers along with a little sleuthing and a lot of slicing and dicing. As Goldy puts it, "Times of trauma, I reflected as I bit into the delicious sandwich—flaky pastry surrounding hot, thinly sliced Danish ham, just-melted Jarlsberg, and a hint of Dijon mustard—demand comfort food." (Mouthwatering recipes are included.)

But what promises to be a meaty mystery wanders into Nancy Drew territory as Goldy gets ambushed in a portable toilet, eavesdrops on a suspect at a Shopaholics Anonymous meeting and stumbles upon the truth at the very moment the killer confronts her. As appetizing as the ingredients may be, they hang together as well as the leftovers thrown into my mom's garbage soup. (Bantam, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Too many crooks spoil the plot

By David Ebershoff

Jane Eyre meets Frontier House in a sweeping romance that comes fully equipped with a wild-child heroine, secret pacts, war heroes, a mansion, even quotes from Emily Bronte. And lo! Who's that stranger crossing the moor? Okay, it's not a moor, it's Pasadena in the early 1900s, as developers begin to shape the city. And the wayward girl, Linda, is a fiery Californian living on the land her German father settled in 1866.

While the main story tracks Linda's escapades into womanhood, it is set up by a second one about a 1944 developer negotiating to buy the land on which she grew up. "Do you have any idea why Mr. Bruder is selling?" he asks his real estate agent. "It's a long story," she responds. Cue flashback to Linda's time. It's a clunky way into the saga, but readers won't complain; Ebershoff, whose novel The Danish Girl brought to life 1930s Denmark, keeps the drama aboil, even if you feel like throwing a bucket of ice water on him when he comes up with passages like "The body—once through the window Linda had seen him undress-like a roan's, strings of muscles in the thigh, across the breast, in the black pit of his groin." (Random House, $24.95)

Bottom Line: No Rose Parade but worth the trip

By J.A. Jance

Beach book of the Week

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A teacher turned writer, Judith Jance has a field day with this one. Favoring flawed heroes over supersleuths, Jance burdens her heroine of nine mysteries, Arizona sheriff Joanna Brady, and crusty Seattle detective J.P. "Beau" Beaumont—a veteran of 15 previous novels—with troubled romances, problem children and nagging self-doubt. In their first grudging partnership, these two earthy protagonists work as hard cleaning up messy personal lives as they do solving the murders of an artist and her bohemian agent.

The intricacy of the murder probe, which unfolds in the dueling points of view of the leads, would be a dizzy mess in less deft hands, but Vance's inner dramas are roiling, never soapy or maudlin. The detectives pick their way through poisonings (which employ a common compound), a corruption scandal, stationhouse politics and political deception. As their hate-hate relationship warms, they face an ever-lurking emotional minefield: insanity, loneliness, jealousy. Frailty dogs our heroes, but courage inspires them. Beau and Brady may wonder which side will win out. We have no doubts. (Morrow, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Perfect pair of gumshoes

By John Jakes

The melodrama is as thick as Carolina swamp water—and as hard to swallow—in this historical novel by the author of the North and South trilogy. Jakes traces Charleston, S.C., from the Revolution till just after the "War of Separation" through the eyes of the fictional Bell clan. There are some compelling descriptions of battles (Jakes obviously did his homework), but the plot and especially the characters are sketchy.

Patriarch Thomas Bell and his line are honest, brave and reverent; their foes are sadistic, debauched—and anti-Semitic for good measure. Jakes devises laughable demises for many in the cast, such as the fellow who is pushed off a dock and fed to an alligator a la Captain Hook. Amid the bloodshed and lust lite (a discreet curtain is drawn when the breathing gets heavy), textbooklike exposition fills pages: "After Guilford Court House, Hobkirk's Hill, Eutaw Springs in early September, Greene was in a position to advance towards the coast." Zzz. (Dutton, $26.95)

Bottom Line: Gator bait

  • Contributors:
  • Debby Waldman,
  • V.R. Peterson,
  • Michelle Tauber,
  • Jennifer Wulff,
  • Scott Nybakken,
  • Todd Seavey,
  • Julie K.L. Dam,
  • Allison Lynn,
  • Cathy Burke,
  • Bella Stander.