by Prince Michael of Greece

How difficult and demanding it must be to belong to the European aristocracy. Not only must one arrange for the upkeep of the family chateau and manage a legion of servants, but it seems one must also deal diplomatically with the castle's resident (and restless) spirits. The only thing that lightens the load is to have a houseguest like Prince Michael of Greece, 45, who according to his new book has a hereditary knack for charming poltergeists and phantoms.

The prince's amateur vocation as a sort of high-end ghostbuster takes him from Portugal to Poland, from Parma to Pavlovsk, touring the magnificent (or ruined) homes of the rich and haunted. En route he encounters a predictable run of disembodied voices and invisible furniture shakers, as well as a few spooks with more original methods of announcing their presence (two Danish ghosts interrupt a Leonard Cohen cassette that a relative is enjoying). Some of this sends pleasantly creepy shivers down the spine, but the prince's decision to focus on female ghosts and transcribe (in first person) their lengthy, often steamy reminiscences ("My relations with my lovers were like the nights of love I gave them, sometimes rampant and destructive like molten lava, sometimes sluggish and gentle as an estuary") often makes his book seem deeply weird in ways that have little or nothing to do with the otherworldly. (Norton, $25)

by Andrew Cowan

The summer of his 15th year, it seems that everything Danny cherishes is slipping away. Living amid the squalor of an English industrial town is sorry enough, but now his parents are battling all the time, his beloved grandmother dies, and his grandfather is banished to a rest home. Desperate to hold on to something, Danny moves into his grandparents' ramshackle cottage and begins caring for their old sow. But it's no good. Grandpa is fading fast in his new surroundings, Danny's Pakistani girlfriend has set her sights beyond the blighted (and racist) town, and the poor pig is dying. This first book by the Scottish-born Cowan won several awards in England, and movie rights have gone to director Mike Leigh {Secrets & Lies). By turns melancholy and comic, it's a small but poignant story about ordinary people for whom life is sweet, and bitter. (Harcourt Brace, $21)

by Faye Wattleton

Faye Wattleton's low-key, lucid account of her 14-year tenure as head of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America is in part a memoir of her early life in an extended and idiosyncratic (her mother was an itinerant evangelical preacher) African-American family. It is also a mini-history of the conflicts that have surrounded the politics of women's reproductive rights.

Wattleton's narrative moves briskly through her childhood in St. Louis and Nebraska, her training in nursing and midwifery at Ohio State University and her experience in the Dayton health department. It chronicles her rapid rise through the Planned Parenthood organization to become, at 34, its youngest president. Along the way, Wattleton learned to face (and face down) the vehement and increasingly violent opposition of the Moral Majority and the Right to Life movement as she dealt with the challenges posed by a succession of landmark federal and state court decisions on the legality and availability of abortion. Meanwhile, dissension within the Planned Parenthood Federation about the intensity of its political activism created and exacerbated tensions that eventually led to Wattleton's resignation in 1992.

Like its author, Life on the Line is dignified, restrained and supremely no-nonsense. But the stories of the women Wattleton encountered in her remarkable career—women whose lives were dramatically changed (and in many cases destroyed) by controversial judicial rulings—remind us of the complexity and importance of the struggles that Wattleton so coolly and competently took on. (Ballantine, $25)

by Olivia Goldsmith

What a great feeling to fall into the capable hands of Olivia Goldsmith. The author of The First Wives Club and The Bestseller always serves up believable characters in slightly outlandish situations in a mixture that makes highly entertaining reading. No one is going to mistake Goldsmith for Joyce Carol Oates or even Margaret Mitchell, but who cares? All pop novels ought to be as hard to put down as Marrying Mom.

The mom in question is 70-year-old widow Phyllis Geronomous, who flees her retirement home in Florida (a state she has always despised) for her native New York City, where her three grown children still reside. She intends to fix their lives. The children, suitably horrified, cook up a scheme that will get her out of their hair and turn a profit: Marry her off to a rich geezer. The resulting romantic twists and turns—Mom isn't the only family member who falls in love—are funny, but better still is Goldsmith's sharp portrait of the maddening but lovable Phyllis. The ultimate Jewish mother, she delivers this assessment to her daughters on the way they turned out: "Don't blame yourselves. You did the best you could for brunettes." (HarperCollins, $16)

by Richard Adams with decorations by John Lawrence

When last we saw them, the plucky rabbits of Watership Down had survived an attack by the loathsome General Woundwort; 22 years later, Adams finally revisits the colony in this utterly captivating sequel. The characters are as memorable as before—including chief rabbit Hazel and his friend Bigwig, sage veterans of the the Great Siege; the formidable does Flyairth and Hyzenthlay; and especially El-ahrairah, the legendary hero who, Prometheus-like, sought out and won the sense of smell for his fellow rabbits. With stories of pride and folly, love and loyalty, the cruelty of nature and of man—even a lapine lexicon—Adams creates a world that is sensuous and convincing. His rabbits aren't cute and cuddly, but creatures making their ways in the world with dignity. That gives these tales an almost mythic power, and they're moving enough to leave a lump in your throat. (Knopf, $23)

by Malachi Martin

Readers with a sweet tooth for fictional global conspiracies will sit still for all sorts of implausible plot strains in the service of a good tale. But this gassy balloon of a novel snaps the tethers of possibility. A host of forces is working to remove Pope John Paul II from the throne of St. Peter. Vatican manipulator Cardinal Cosimo Maestroianni leads a hazy cabal of international bankers, industrialists and politicians that looks to give the church a formidable place in something called the New World Order—a kind of supranational, one-government paradise on earth without spiritual anchor. They want to oust the conservative Pope. Martin, a former Jesuit priest who has returned to the laity, unconscionably lumps together Satanists, homosexuals, Freemasons and the United Nations as enemies of religion in general and the Vatican in particular. Gay and devil-worshipping bishops and priests, the reader is asked to believe, are in cahoots. Windswept tries to give fictional voice to the dangers of this fanciful doomsday scenario, but mostly it—and Martin—are on a fool's errand. (Doubleday, $24.95)

by Seth Swirsky

For baseball fans, winter begins with the last pitch of the World Series, and with it the season for reflection and recovery. The game is, after all, evergreen, and Seth Swirsky's volume of letters from players, an engaging addition to baseball's overabundant literature, suggests one reason why. At a time when fans are driven to disaffection by $35 autographs, player strikes and the transient loyalties of owners and stars, it is good to be reminded that the game still has some honesty and human warmth at its heart.

Swirsky, a Los Angeles songwriter, began writing to dozens of former players in 1994. Many of the replies are gracious and touching; all are reprinted in the players' own handwriting, with the players' own grammar, giving the book its inviting sense of the personal. Ballplayers are frequently men of few words, but sometimes those words are the right ones. Swirsky asks Bobby Doerr, the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame second baseman, "Was there ever a time you stood at your position in front of a full Fenway [Park] crowd on a beautiful summer day and felt a rush of happiness that you were where you were at that moment in your life?" Doerr's response, in its entirety: "Yes." (Kodansha, $24)

by John Harvey

Page-Turner of the Week

OPERATING SOMEWHERE BETWEEN THE police procedurals of P.D. James and the psychological thrillers of Ruth Rendell, fellow Briton Harvey claims a compelling turf: the nightmare streets of an England on the dole. Teenage Nicky Snape's apparent suicide is quickly followed by the gay-bashing murder of the policeman assigned to the case. Investigating both deaths, Det. Charlie Resnick pinches small victories from this urban slaughterhouse. It's a tale that will stay with a reader for a long time to come. (Holt, $23)

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

>HE SAYS, SHE SAYS

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker became celebrated televangelists on their PTL (for "praise the Lord") Club TV program before Jim admitted to a 1980 sexual tryst with church secretary Jessica Hahn and was later convicted of defrauding PTL's followers. Now divorced, they look back in separate memoirs.

  • Contributors:
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  • Ross Drake.