Here are four new hot novels to warm you up as you settle into what forecasters are predicting will be a long, cold winter. It's time to build a fire, fix a nice, soothing cup of tea, retreat to your favorite armchair and lose yourself in other people's entanglements.
Light My Fire
The list of Nora Roberts's books is so long it makes you wonder if she's keeping an army of ghostwriters captive in her basement. After reading her most recent, Blue Smoke (Putnam, $25.95), I can understand why she's so popular; if you're in the right mood -- meaning you need a good escape yarn and aren't too picky about the prose -- this book is for you. Eleven-year old Reena Hale, from a big, close-knit Italian-American family, becomes fascinated with fire and arson after her parents' pizza joint in Baltimore's Little Italy is torched by a neighborhood misfit. The story opens with young Reena on the night of the fire and follows her over the next 20 years as she grows up, attends the University of Maryland and becomes an arson investigator. She's beautiful, of course, and tough, a strange hybrid of the old-fashioned romance heroine and the postmodern emotional dominatrix. I kept imagining Frank Sinatra singing "I'll Do It My Way" as Reena battles fires, endures a series of heartbreaks and makes her way up the law enforcement food chain. All the while, a string of arsons is unfolding in Reena's personal universe. It takes her a maddeningly long time to figure out who is behind the fires -- way longer than it will take the average reader -- which had the effect on this reader of wanting to reach into the pages and shake some sense into her. Otherwise, the pace is fast and exciting -- though be forewarned that a few brutal scenes, including a graphic rape, are not for the faint of heart.
Love in Bloom
Also set in Baltimore, Libby Malin's Loves Me, Loves Me Not (Red Dress; paperback, $12.95) is a much more light-hearted tale, with no big tragedies except the one off-stage before the novel begins that is the catalyst for all that follows. The book opens with Amy Sheldon, who works in a low-key flower shop, nursing her grief over her fiance, who was killed by a drunk driver. Two years have passed since the accident, and Amy knows it's time to get back in the dating game but just can't seem to jump-start that part of her brain/heart. Against her better judgment, she gets involved with Henry Castle, a successful young attorney who, judging from his weekly flower orders, makes Casanova look like a choir boy. Overall, this novel is quite charming despite its annoyingly self-conscious chick-litty-ness. (Note to self: Never write a book in which the main character, Bridget Jones-like, prefaces her realizations with the overused note-to-self shtick.) Twenty-something Amy is hopelessly self-absorbed but in a deprecating way that makes you root for her as you roll your eyes at each new dumb choice she makes. Finally, she bucks up and faces the reality of her past so that she can get on with her life. While predictable, the love story is charming and will be appreciated by any woman with bad taste in men who somehow inexplicably ends up with Mr. Right.
On Second Thought
The plot of Jude Deveraux's First Impressions (Atria, $25.95) is a bit ridiculous, something you'd expect to find on the Lifetime Network (the "Channel for Women") or, as my husband refers to it, "the network about men who kill, maim or double-cross their women." But if you are in the mood to suspend your disbelief, this mystery/romance will keep you from turning on the tube. Forty-five-year-old Eden Palmer, a New York book editor, returns to the small North Carolina town where she took refuge 27 years earlier as a pregnant unmarried teen after her strict, unforgiving parents threw her out. Little does she know she's got the FBI on her tail; a spy swallowed a piece of paper with her name on it shortly before his demise, and the FBI wants to know why. The agent charged with figuring out how Eden is mixed up in this mess falls in love with her while she falls in love with the town's most eligible aging bachelor. Throughout the story, she alternates between the hunky guy she trusts and the one she loves. The lush Southern landscape is described in great detail as Eden resumes her earlier passion of 18th-century garden design. There are more twists and turns than San Francisco's famed Lombard Street, and the "Body Heat" ending is sure to give readers a chuckle.
Reversals of Fortune
The Inheritance, by Annabel Dilke (St. Martin's, $24.95), the story of the Chandler family in 1960s England, starts out slowly, with an unwieldy cast of characters a bit hard to keep track of, or even care about. We follow Alice, the beautiful sister, and Eve, the clever one, as they struggle to break free of the shackles of their oppressive, to-the-manor-born heritage and the silent melodrama being played out daily by their deeply dysfunctional parents. The atmospherics at the family's estate, Edgerton, are, for better or for worse, totally British, down to the yucky, overcooked food, drafty hallways and dreary, rainy days. Dilke skillfully conveys the secret language of family and the unique sort of heartbreak one's siblings, particularly sisters, can cause each other. The book is also about making youthful mistakes that lose their reckless appeal over time, leaving those in middle age with more melancholic regrets than appealing memories. The cumulative effect of loss upon loss leaves the reader bereft in the end, in a way psychologically reminiscent of John Cheever's haunting short story "The Swimmer." Dilke's mastery of manipulating chronology for optimum emotional effect is breathtaking. *
Barbara Feinman Todd teaches journalism at Georgetown University.