By Anita Shreve

The heroines of such Shreve novels asThe Pilot's Wife and The Weight of Water often find themselves at the mercy of men behaving badly, and the latest is no exception. This time, however, we hear the story from the perspective of the man, a humorless English professor named Nicholas Van Tassel who is writing a memoir of his doomed marriage years later.

The novel, set at the turn of the 20th century in a New England town, opens with Nicholas escaping a hotel fire. In the aftermath he spots a mysterious woman and promptly becomes infatuated. Soon his attraction to the woman, Etna Bliss, becomes an obsession, and he persuades her to marry him. She will never love him, though, which makes Nicholas desperate. He falsely accuses her of an affair and spies on her every move.

Like the Van Tassels' marriage, the story lacks passion. Nicholas's point of view doesn't quite work—it's nothing but a device for him to tediously unravel Etna's past, the revelations of which aren't worth the wait. Shreve makes a valid point about the power of passion to "both erode and enhance character in equal measure," but the story leaves us longing for something more. (Little, Brown, $25.95)

BOTTOM LINE: No spark

By Alexander McCall Smith
Critic's Choice

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Precious Ramotswe is the no-nonsense proprietor of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in Botswana. She has a loving fiancé and plenty of time for tea before puttering off on the next case. When a rival opens the Satisfaction Guaranteed Detective Agency, she investigates the newcomer while at the same time helping her secretary—who has opened the school of the title—hunt for Mr. Right.

Kalahari is the fourth in a crowd-pleasing series whose cases are easy to solve and whose characters are easy to like. McCall Smith, a Scottish lawyer raised in Africa, describes kindly folks who work, gossip, fall in and out of love and teach children right from wrong, all without dwelling too long (but just long enough) on Botswana's serious AIDS problem. It's a side of Africa too rarely seen on the news, and Smith's old-fashioned storytelling gifts make Precious a treasure. (Pantheon, $19.95)

BOTTOM LINE: Satisfaction guaranteed

By T. Jefferson Parker

California noir moves to San Diego in this tough and taut novel about a detective with more ties to a murder victim than the Golden State has freeways. Det. Tom McMichael is looking into the slaying of ex-San Diego mayor Pete Braga, a powerful tuna fisherman turned tycoon who is bludgeoned in his home. In 1952 Braga killed McMichael's grandfather and got off on a self-defense claim. Shortly after, Braga's son Victor was beaten so badly that now, at 63, he still has the mind of a 10-year-old; suspicion fell on the detective's father, though nothing was proved. And McMichael's first love was Braga's granddaughter, though he also has an affair with Braga's enigmatic nurse despite his partner's warning that "nobody with bullet holes in her neck is straight up."

The plot is a cat's cradle that includes a gruesome smuggling operation, a crooked cop, a missing prostitute and a reconsidered will, but the masterly Parker never lets the strands tangle. (Hyperion, $23.95)

BOTTOM LINE: Pursue it hotly

By Mary Higgins Clark

If you're really hungry for McDonald's, then a Big Mac is worth more than foie gras. Clark's latest fast-food suspense novel follows journalist Carley DeCarlo as she tries to get the story behind a scandal: The developer of a cancer vaccine seems to have died in a plane crash just before reports emerge that he was an embezzler peddling a false cure.

Although the title refers to a new love in the divorced reporter's life, Clark spends almost no time on the romance, focusing instead on a homicidal loon who feels cheated by the drug exec and stalks DeCarlo. Clark keeps the chase lively throughout. (Simon & Schuster, $26)

BOTTOM LINE: Comfort fiction

By Elizabeth Cohen

The same week that her daughter Ava first said her own name, Cohen's father, suffering from Alzheimer's, failed to recognize his name on a census form. Cohen's touching memoir recounts how she saw her child discover the world as her dad, a former professor, slipped into dementia. Soon after Cohen, her husband and Ava moved into a house in upstate New York, where Cohen is a journalist, her ill father came to stay—and her husband left. What makes the book so sympathetic is Cohen's lack of self-pity and the straightforward tone in which she recounts seeing an infant and an old man converge on common ground as the baby grows—and the father declines—into childhood. (Random House, $23.95)

BOTTOM LINE: Superb chronicle

By Jane Heller

Just as 34-year-old actress Stacey Reiser—the heroine of Heller's 10th novel—is on the verge of success, she finds herself starring in a real-life comedy of errors. Jack Rawlins, a movie critic with the power to "literally torpedo a budding career" (trust us, no critic is that powerful), declares her performance in the latest comedy to have "the subtlety of a sledgehammer." Worse, her nagging mother, Helen, joins her in L.A.—and finds a bone in a can of tuna fish. That incident leads, through an unpredictable chain of events, to Helen landing a gig as a pitchwoman for Fin's tuna. Faster than you can say Freaky Friday, Mom is a phenom and her daughter a pesky worrywart.

Heller often writes with the subtlety of a sledgehammer: Helen is so obnoxious that her daughter's refusal to tell her off becomes infuriating. (How many women would tolerate a mom who barges in during a date, scaring off a promising guy?) But the plot of Lucky Stars is wildly inventive—from that tuna business to Stacey's extravagant attempts to investigate her mother's fishy new boyfriend. Heller's prose is quite funny and always engaging. In the end, Stars shines. (St. Martin's, $25.95)

BOTTOM LINE: Lucky charms

Photographer Harry Benson first began shooting Ronald and Nancy Reagan in 1966, when he was running for governor of California. Benson has since snapped the former First Couple on several occasions, and the best shots are in The President & Mrs. Reagan: An American Love Story (Abrams, $19.95), a rare window into a 51-year romance. "They are really in love," says Benson, 68. "It's not Just for the camera. These pictures show the way they went through their life."

  • Contributors:
  • Michelle Vellucci,
  • Edward Nawotka,
  • Edward Karam,
  • Ron Givens,
  • Francine Prose,
  • Dan Jewel.