412 pages. $21.95.
Susan Isaacs fans expecting another appealingly ordinary heroine who accomplishes something extraordinary are going to be surprised at her new novel: The central character is a flippant, 40-year-old male homicide detective with a past of heroin and alcohol addiction.
The female lead is equally odd. Chief suspect in the murder of her ex-husband, a movie producer, she's impoverished because she didn't want alimony. She's promiscuous because she's lonely. She lies a lot because she doesn't want the detective to think she sleeps around. He doesn't know what to think: She looks vaguely familiar, but he was so drunk the time they picked each other up in a bar he can't remember their one-night stand. He figures he's become sexually obsessed with her because she's so darned nice.
This load of baggage does not make for a pretty pair.
But even though it's hard to care about them, it's impossible to be unengaged by the story. Evidence points in all directions, while subtle clues are overlooked. For understandable reasons, the detective is slow in figuring it all out, and readers will get a nice warm glow when they know whodunit a page or two before he does. Halfway through this beautifully written novel, Alice tells her grown son, Jonathan, to live a full life. In her late 50s and recently widowed, Alice feels cheated. Having traded her dreams for security, she's unable to connect with her own feelings or with those of her son.
Michael Cunningham's second book, "A Home at the End of the World" (parts of which appeared in the New Yorker), takes an inside look at four people who misconnect and disconnect: Alice; Jonathan; his friend, Bobby; and their friend, Clare. Each narrates a sorrowful tale about the sterility of a life lived in the shallows. Nothing much happens in this novel, but that's the point. The characters age and realize themselves as people "who always held back." As Clare explains, they limited themselves by deciding in advance what their relationships could and could not involve. Now they don't have a life; they haunt a life. Chained to the past like ghosts, they protect themselves with silence.
144 pages. $12.95.
Ages 10 and up.
In a time-shift fantasy, modern-day Zoe -- whose mother named her from words on an old tombstone -- and Zoe Louise, the girl buried over 100 years ago, need each other's comfort and friendship. Zoe, raised by maternal grandparents because of her mother's irresponsibility and immaturity, first encounters the earlier child in a playhouse her grandfather is fixing up. Zoe Louise, immediately establishing dominance, demands that the house be painted pink -- and for a long while she holds sway over Zoe, never growing older, although she always anticipates her birthday and the pony her father will be giving her.
Alongside their mystical playtimes is the everyday life Zoe experiences with her warm, loving grandparents and the sporadic appearances of her mother. The movement from one time to another, which is carefully achieved on the back staircase, is always the crucial moment in stories like this one. The book, both a mystery adventure and a story about two children generations apart, is suspenseful and satisfying, as Zoe recognizes the truth about Zoe Louise, as well as the truth about her own mother. Pam Conrad, who has written only a few books for readers of this age, is establishing a strong reputation for her daring to write about the unusual.
JUDITH B. ROSENFELD