Summer fiction

Appaloosa, By Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 276 pp., $24.95

The prolific crime writer (the Spenser detective series) trades Boston for the Old West in his 51st outing, and the wide-open spaces appear to agree with him. After the local sheriff and a deputy are killed, the small town of Appaloosa hires two gunmen, Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, to protect them from Randall Bragg and his bullies. Cole and Hitch quip with the best of them, and readers won't regret time spent in their company. Bragg is soon sitting in the local lockup, and Cole has settled down with a piano-playing widow of questionable faithfulness. But as they're transporting Bragg to be hanged, the widow gets kidnapped. Parker doesn't exactly reinvent the western genre, but he's having such a good time playing cowboy, fans won't want to resist.

The Historian, By Elizabeth Kostova, Little, Brown, 656 pp., $25.95

A teenage girl opens a book in her father's library to find a wood-block print of a dragon and a packet of letters addressed to "My dear and unfortunate successor." When she questions her dad about the eerie discovery, she and the reader are launched into Kostova's debut novel, a many-layered tale about a quest to find Dracula. In Kostova's novel, Dracula was in life Vlad Tepes, a Wallachian prince fond of impaling his enemies, who, in the intervening centuries, has set up a kind of Undead Book of the Month Club, sending historians a copy of the Dragon book, and then promptly attacking them once they try to figure out its origin. As the quest ranges from America to Eastern Europe and Turkey, the intriguing start ultimately gives way to a reliance on horror conventions. Overlong and prone to curious lapses of logic - for example, none of the main vampire hunters believes in God, yet all rely on crosses for protection - the novel ranks somewhere above most horror offerings but below serious literature.

Rococo, By Adriana Trigiani, Random House, 267 pp., $24.95

Bartolomeo di Crespi has devoted himself to beautifying the homes of Our Lady of Fatima, N.J., "from slipcover to oven mitt." But the interior decorator's dream of overseeing renovations on the cathedral where he served as altar boy is scuttled when the priest hires a big-city firm instead. Outraged parishioners come to the rescue, and soon B (as he's known) is jetting to London and Italy on research trips. In between detailing gorgeous interiors and decadent recipes (my favorite: Our Lady of (Drown Your) Sorrows Cake with Heavenly Frosting), B worries about the three main women in his life: his favorite cousin, his older sister, and finally Capri Mandelbaum, 39 and still living at home. (Her mother, the chief donor to the church, is convinced that B and Capri were made for each other - despite decades of mutual disinterest.) The book never fully attains a "Moonstruck" level of appeal, but it would be impossible not to like a hero who declares that "Italy, despite its earthiness and charm, can never be New Jersey."

72 Hour Hold, By Bebe Moore Campbell, Alfred A. Knopf, 319 pp., $24.95

Love is the subject of lots of bestsellers, but the fifth book of award-winning novelist Campbell ("Singing in the Comeback Choir") is more accurately a tale of tough love. Her heroine, Keri Whiting, is a single mom determined to rescue her teenage daughter, Trina, from the self-destructive spiral of bipolar disorder. Keri's ex-husband, a conservative talk-radio host, refuses to accept the diagnosis; and she's shut out the friends who knew her before Trina's diagnosis. Evoking Harriet Tubman, Campbell chronicles Keri's attempts to navigate the Byzantine mental-health care system and her encounter with a secretive group that models itself on the Underground Railroad. The motif heightens the feeling of the novel as a chase, with Keri - Trina in tow - running in pursuit of freedom. The story isn't so much about the specifics of how to treat mental illness as it is about the struggle of one woman to rebuild her family after its devastation.

The Undomestic Goddess, By Sophie Kinsella, Dial Press, 371 pp., $23

Humiliation, usually of the public variety, is a frequent occurrence in Kinsella's novels - from the increasingly tired "Shopaholic" series to last year's "Can You Keep a Secret?" So fans of the British novelist won't be surprised to hear that hotshot finance lawyer Samantha Sweeting discovers a £50-million mistake on her desk the morning that she finally makes partner. Reeling in shock, Samantha heads for the country where, through a comedy of errors, she's hired as housekeeper to a nouveau-riche couple. Since law degrees from Cambridge don't typically require home economics classes, Samantha can barely make toast. Conveniently, the estate's hunky gardener has a mother who's happy to train Sam in the domestic arts. Samantha is eminently likable, and overworked readers will empathize with her glee at her first full weekend off in years, but Kinsella strains probability in too many directions. (A few cooking classes, and Samantha can suddenly whip out a charity dinner for dozens of guests?) The first half of the novel is light and breezy, but the second half sags like an undercooked soufflé.

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