(Linda Helton)
By Barbara Feinman Todd
Sunday, February 12, 2006

In Every Breath You Take , by Judith McNaught (Ballantine, $25.95), after Kate Donovan's beloved father dies in a freak drive-by shooting, she goes to the Caribbean island of Anguilla to grieve and unwind with her longtime boyfriend, an attorney who doesn't really float her boat. When said boyfriend is called back to Chicago on a big case, Kate bumps into (literally) the most handsome guy in the history of mankind, Mitchell Wyatt, a man with great biceps and a secret past. The romance comes with a convoluted yet oddly compelling mystery as its backdrop, its power diminished somewhat by a surfeit of coincidences that would choke even Charles Dickens. Kate spends nearly half the novel trying to decide whether or not she should go to bed with Mitchell. It takes the two of them so long to make a decision that I began to wish the romance would turn into a murder-suicide.

Crimes of the Heart

Jayne Ann Krentz's most recent offering, All Night Long (Putnam, $24.95), features thirtysomething newspaper reporter Irene Stenson. She is leading a quiet life when a cryptic e-mail from her long-ago best friend Pamela Webb summons her back to her childhood home in Northern California, the scene of her parents' horrific and still unsolved murder 17 years earlier. Upon arrival she discovers her friend's body, and, once again, Irene finds herself trying to make sense of an inexplicable tragedy. Helping her get to the bottom of it all is Luke Danner, a handsome ex-Marine who runs the local lodge where she is staying. Wary at first, Irene finds herself drawn to him, and before too long she surrenders, but not before their foreplay includes finding a body and narrowly escaping death and dismemberment in the dead woman's burning house. (Have these people ever heard of dinner and a movie?) Senator Ryland Webb, the dead woman's father, has presidential aspirations, lending Krentz's usual romantic suspense a different twist. The plot is ridiculous but fun, while the prose, when you are able to notice, is flabby and slows down the action.

Doctor's Orders

The Instant When Everything Is Perfect , by Jessica Barksdale Inclán (NAL Accent; paperback, $12.95). Forty-two-year-old Mia Alden, a successful novelist and college professor, loves her two sons but is a bit bored with her fabulous husband. Soon something not so romantic happens -- Mia's mother is diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, and Mia is the adult child who is geographically, if not emotionally, best suited to see her through the ordeal. But this is a romance novel, so Mia gets to fall in love with Mom's surgeon, and, not surprisingly, he returns the favor, and they enter into a brief adulterous affair. The air-brushed perfection of the main characters that is requisite for the genre is mitigated by the more realistic portrayal of bearing witness to a loved one's battle with cancer; anyone who has accompanied a cherished friend or relative through the chamber of horrors that includes mastectomy, reconstruction, chemo and radiation will recognize that here the author hits the right notes. The tortured affair between Mia and her mother's surgeon is forgettable, but the understated romantic attachment between her mother and a neighborhood widower is charming.

War (Brides) and Peace

Cooked up over lunch among friends who are accomplished romance writers, Hearts Divided , by Debbie Macomber, Katherine Stone and Lois Faye Dyer (Mira; paperback, $7.99), consists of three loosely connected stories about war brides and their granddaughters. The characters tend to be two-dimensional, but the structure of the linked stories is clever. Of the three, Dyer's "Liberty Hall" may be the most compelling. Chloe Abbott, an English professor at the University of Washington, relies on her grandmother's World War II code-breaking expertise when she finds herself in the middle of a dangerous mystery. If you're looking for "Body Heat"-type steamy sex scenes, you won't find them here; the stories are sweet and sanitized, in a "Murder She Wrote" sort of way.

Not Your Great-Grandmother's Life

In 1979, A Woman of Substance began Barbara Taylor Bradford's bestselling series chronicling a British dynasty that includes three clans: the Hartes, the O'Neills and the Kallinskis. In Just Rewards (St. Martin's, $24.95), the last of six novels, the author focuses on Linnet O'Neill, the great-granddaughter and heiress-apparent of Emma Harte, the dynasty's late matriarch, who is trying to modernize the family business, a chain of department stores founded by her great-grandmother. With its large cast of characters and complex plot, this engrossing novel is more ambitious than the others noted here. It's not necessary to have read earlier works in the series because Bradford artfully helps newcomers keep it all straight -- though at times this reader was flipping back to the four pages of genealogical front matter.

It's the sort of novel where the women are apt to be named India, the men Gideon, and the houses Pennistone Royal. This won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it is if you fancy a world of big country estates, small-minded half-sisters and melodramatic dialogue -- such as "The Harte women always get what they want, no matter what that is." In addition to Linnet's struggle to maintain her spot as Emma Harte's successor, several plot threads are going on simultaneously, including one involving Linnet's half-sister, who is trying to start over after a bitter divorce, and Evan Hughes, their American cousin, who is carrying twins, planning her wedding and dealing with her unstable and jealous adopted sister, who spells trouble for everyone. The plot is equal parts evil, rivalry and romance. ยท

Barbara Feinman Todd teaches journalism at Georgetown University.

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