To cheat or not to cheat -- the heroine's question.

By Reviewed by Claudia Deane
Sunday, April 15, 2007

Little Lady, Big AppleBy Hester Browne Pocket. 360 pp. $23

After Bridget, you wouldn't think there's room for another slightly chubby but charming Brit bachelorette, yet there is. Oddly, it's another Jones: Melissa Romney-Jones, who runs a business offering "every girlfriend service a man could need, except sex and laundry." Don't know what to buy for your godson's christening? She'll take care of it. Need someone to point out that those too-short shirtsleeves give you an orangutan air? She's your woman. She's already been the heroine of The Little Lady Agency, and this sequel, Little Lady, Big Apple is a standout. Now 28, Melissa leaves London for an extended Manhattan vacation with her boyfriend (and former client), who feels a wee bit threatened by her man-saving business. He wants her to ratchet back to organizing tea parties and baby showers. But Melissa can't help getting sucked into a case: transforming the off-screen persona of an English actor from mumbling groper to dangerous Mr. Darcy. It's all spun as light as lingerie, but it's also effortlessly witty and utterly winning.

Underneath It AllBy Margo Candela Kensington. 345 pp. Paperback, $14

Three things make Jacquelyn, the crude, funny, occasionally amoral heroine of Margo Candela's first novel stand out in a crowded genre. One is that, though she's a free-speaking, free-thinking young divorcee, her main romantic relationship is platonic. Two, she's Mexican-American, part of a claustrophobic nine-person California family. And, three, she doesn't wind up with a man.

Underneath It All is set in San Francisco and peopled with a fairly hilarious, if sometimes stereotypical, group of characters. Jacquelyn, a politics-loving Berkeley grad, has somehow ended up employed by the former-soap-star wife of the city's ambitious mayor. Not only does she live in the bizarre bubble of a celebrity personal assistant, but her best friend, an Indian-American doctor, is freaking her out by "allowing her parents to essentially arrange her marriage to a man she's known only a few weeks." Mr. Mayor is ominously flirting with his (unhappily) married press secretary; and Jacquelyn's Oprah-watching mother is swamping her with waves of family guilt. The book is written in short chapterlets, perfect for its quick and quirky plot.

What Goes AroundBy Susan Diamond Morrow. 358 pp. $24.95

Former Los Angeles Times writer Susan Diamond's first novel is also set in California, this time seamy Los Angeles. What Goes Around is an interesting hybrid of a book: one-third murder mystery, one-third revenge novel, one-third circle-of-friends tale of female empowerment. Although the murder of trophy wife/undercover call girl Ginger Pass sets the action moving, the killers are outed by page 106, and readers never learn the details of her death. Instead, the action shifts to a group of five diverse L.A. women in the weekly therapy group to which Ginger belonged. When the authorities seem unwilling to take the crime seriously, the women decide vengeance shall be theirs. Each member of the group (one a corporate lawyer, another a doctor, a financial whiz, an athlete, etc.) also manages to overcome a personal obstacle. As long as you don't think too hard about some of the convenient coincidences, this is an intriguing and occasionally suspenseful novel.

Still Life with HusbandBy Lauren Fox Knopf. 258 pp. $22.95

Emily Ross works part-time at the only-sounds-salacious medical journal Male Reproduction, and she's married to a man who is utterly, soul-freezingly bland. What she wants -- in a sudden, cyclonic way -- is to have an affair with the dark-haired reporter who frequents her favorite coffee shop.

First novelist Lauren Fox is a smooth, wry writer. Her primary achievement is taking you on a slow-motion, step-by-step trip down the infamous slippery slope, showing you how a bored but decent woman starts on high, safe ground and ends up in a ditch. Even more impressively, she does this without your completely losing sympathy for Emily, much as you would stick by your best friend even as you watched her taking out her frustrations on the people she loves.

Alphabet Weekends Love on the Road from A to ZBy Elizabeth Noble Harper. 425 pp. Paperback, $14.95

A similar subplot runs through Alphabet Weekends, the latest novel by Brit Elizabeth Noble, author of The Reading Group. This is what happens after our heroines are swept off their feet and get married: They procreate, start spending New Year's Eve at home, and cope with depressed, out-of-work husbands. Grim.

But the book centers on the relationship between two singles: 35-year-old Natalie, recently dumped by an insufferably self-absorbed surgeon; and her lifelong best friend, Tom, whose new mission in life is to convince her that they belong together. His gimmick: They should embark on 26 weekends of alphabetical activities. A is for abseiling (that's rappelling in Americanese), B for ballet and so on, all the way to Vegas and beyond. It's a relaxing trip with some likable characters, but there's a curious lack of suspense about the two friends' ultimate destiny. Maybe if the alphabet were a bit shorter?

Icing on the CakeBy Laura Castoro Mira. 379 pp. $13.95

So you're in your mid-40s, 15 pounds overweight and divorced -- in the new millennium, this does not disqualify you from being a romantic heroine. After being jilted by her ex-husband, Liz Talbot leaves advertising to transform her grandparents' New Jersey bagel shop into an artisan bakery. Icing on the Cake is romance-writer Laura Castoro's 36th book, though one aimed at a more mainstream audience. It's about love, sure, but also business smarts, catfights, a hip-hop baking crew, and the strong bond between the women in Liz's family.

Claudia Deane is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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