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Sunday, May 13, 2007 - Page updated at 02:01 AM

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Books

Fabulous, fluffy chick-lit offerings for the summer

Seattle Times arts writer

It's officially spring, which means that publishers are sending us reams of chick-lit novels (presumably anticipating the advent of vacation time). Here's a roundup of some recent entries in this busy category of fiction, which Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English aptly defines as "any literature that is intended to appeal more to women than men, with a focus on strong or quirky females."

We'll show you strong and quirky. (Rated on a scale of one to four chicks, with four being the best.)

"Indiscretion," by Jude Morgan (St. Martin's Press, $24.95):

Fans of Regency-period novels will enjoy this charming, well-written story of one Caroline Fortune, a young woman whose father's profligacy demands that she earn her keep as the paid companion to a Grade-A bully, the filthy-rich but mean-tempered Mrs. Catling. Intriguing characters, from a roguish would-be seducer to a dithering heir, enliven a plot that is never completely predictable.

"The River Knows," by Amanda Quick (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $24.95):

Seattle's Jayne Ann Krentz, better known to historical-fiction fans as Amanda Quick, evokes the atmosphere of Victorian London with a feisty, intelligent heroine who finds herself tracking down the same evildoer as a mysterious gentleman. Well-plotted, adventurous and suspenseful, "The River Knows" takes the reader downstream with lots of surprising twists and undercurrents.

"Acceptance," by Susan Coll (Farrar Straus Giroux, $23.00):

When a statistical error lands lackluster Yates College in the U.S. News and World Report's list of top liberal-arts colleges, a parade of desperate parents and confused youngsters marches toward Yates, and "even in her cynical, calcified heart," the admissions officer feels sorry for the masses trying to matriculate. You'll laugh, you'll wince.

"Simply Magic," by Mary Balogh (Delacorte Press, $22.00):

Part of a series about four women at a young ladies' academy in Regency, England, this novel rises above the usual genre fiction with an intriguing plot and characters who have been damaged by their pasts. Neither a young nobleman nor a schoolteacher is quite what either might seem. Balogh cleverly interweaves her protagonists' lives with characters from her previous books, but you don't have to know the series to enjoy this one on its own.

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"Echoes of the Dance," by Marcia Willett (St. Martin's Press, $24.95):

This popular British author has brought back Kate, a character from earlier books ("First Friends" and "A Friend of the Family"), for a role in her new novel about an extended family circle with two professional dancers — both of different generations, both injured — who have discovered new ways to remake their lives. What moves the reader is Willett's obvious affection for her characters, even their dogs, who are fully drawn in their own right.

"Summer Reading," by Hilma Wolitzer. (Ballantine Books, $24.95):

Hilma Wolitzer transcends genres in this complicated, tender book about the intersection of several lives in the Hamptons, a New York enclave of the privileged. Lissy, a beautiful second wife and unwilling stepmother, is hoping that a select reading group will help secure her social status. Angela, the troubled college professor hired to lead the Page Turners group, is struggling with the consequences of her earlier heedless sexual choices. And Lissy's housecleaner, Michelle, is frustrated by a relationship that seems to be going nowhere. Wolitzer knits these lives together with prose that startles with its descriptive power: clandestine lovers who lack the "leisure to slowly peel away their clothing, rather than tear it from their bodies like emergency medical workers homing in on a bleeding wound."

"Starting Out Sideways," by Mary E. Mitchell. (Thomas Dunne Books, $23.95):

It may be a cliché — sleazy husband dumping worthy wife for wife's best friend — but it's positively the last cliché you'll find in Mary E. Mitchell's debut novel, "Starting Out Sideways." The wronged wife, Roseanna Plow, is a career counselor for the mentally disabled, and she's great at handling crises for the clients she carefully places in jobs at the grocery store and dental clinic. But Rosie's errant husband is the least of her worries when her mother reveals a family secret that poleaxes her.

"Friends in High Places," by Marne Davis Kellogg. (St. Martin's Press, $24.95):

Glamorous jewel thief Kick Keswick, heroine of Marne Davis Kellogg's past three novels ("Priceless," "Brilliant" and "Perfect'), has retired to a life of unspeakable luxury in the south of France with her dapper British husband. Soon, however, the sybaritic middle-aged heroine assumes one of her many fake identities, grabs her Louis Vuitton luggage with the secret compartments, and roars off in a Maserati Quattroporte to an ultra-glam location for some derring-do involving priceless rubies and bejeweled statues. Don't you wish you were going along? I know I do!

"Sheer Abandon," by Penny Vincenzi. (Doubleday, $24.95):

British author Penny Vincenzi, a No. 1 bestseller in the UK, hops across the Atlantic with this big, juicy saga of three women who met at Heathrow in 1985, just before starting off on their pre-college backpacking trips. Now successful adults — a lawyer/politician, a physician and a tabloid journalist — the women meet again as one is struggling with the consequences of her deepest secret: upon her return from the earlier trip, she bore and abandoned an illegitimate baby in an airport staff room. Some surprising plot twists make this massive yarn intriguing, though it helps if you understand the British political system.

"The Men's Guide to the Women's Bathroom," by Jo Barrett (Avon, $13.95):

A great title, though the novel has a little trouble living up to it. Claire, badly burned by her recent divorce and newly moved from New York to Texas, decides to quit lawyering and write a book about the advice and insights women give each other in the restroom. (This is just what Barrett herself did.) Basically, the topics are men and sex, with occasional asides about where great clothes may be found. Mildly entertaining.

"Back on Blossom Street," by Debbie Macomber (Mira Books, $24.95):

Local author Debbie Macomber returns to the fictitious Blossom Street in Seattle, where her new yarn is just as cozy as the prayer shawls created in Lydia Goetz's knitting class. The knitters, and friends in shops nearby, have an array of difficulties, from a carjacking and a severe case of pre-wedding jitters to troublesome bosses and a bereavement. Not to worry: as one character puts it, "Everything seems better after tea."

"Austenland," by Shannon Hale (Bloomsbury USA, $19.95):

New Yorker Jane Hayes is an Austen fan who is obsessed with Mr. Darcy (as played by Colin Firth in the BBC "Pride and Prejudice," an obsession she shares with another fictional character, Bridget Jones). A bequest from a relative sends Jane to an Austen theme park in Britain, where you dress up and pretend to be someone in the year 1816 (although you get to use 21st century bathroom facilities). Jane is torn between the Darcy-like Mr. Nobley and a hunky gardener, and I am torn between hurling this unfortunate book to the floor and igniting it in the fireplace.

"Shopaholic and Baby," by Sophie Kinsella (Dial Press, $24):

Fans of Kinsella's shopaholic heroine, Becky Bloomwood, will enjoy Becky's further adventures as wife and mom-to-be. Now married to the handsome Luke and expecting a baby, Becky is happily buying five prams and loads of baby accessories — until she realizes that her glamorous obstetrician Venetia, Luke's old flame, is sending Luke text messages in Latin and possibly trying to ensnare him for herself. Overwrought, Becky tells her hateful mother-in-law that they're naming the baby Armageddon (if male) or Pomegranate, and that they will tattoo the infant immediately after birth. You may find yourself laughing out loud.

"A Model Summer," by Paulina Porizkova (Hyperion, $23.95):

How unfair. Former supermodel Paulina Porizkova is not only gorgeous; she also is a fine writer. This roman a clef is the story of a young model who is discovered at 15, then thrown into a Parisian fast-lane milieu of wild parties, drugs, opportunistic men, jealousy and bogus offers of instant film stardom. But Jirina, the model, is still just a kid alone in a foreign country. For all of us who thought modeling was glamorous, here's a jolt of reality.

"Land of Mango Sunsets," by Dorothea Benton Frank (William Morrow, $24.95):

No wonder Miriam is feeling grumpy: her slime-ball husband Charles has deserted her for younger woman, her grown sons are chilly and remote, and her fellow New York society matrons are as shallow as a layer of lip gloss. Miriam teaches her African gray parrot to say "Charles is a horse's (bad word)," but she finds much more satisfactory revenge in living well — in this case, returning to her Sullivan's Island roots in South Carolina and reconnecting with the people who matter to her.

"Little Stalker," by Jennifer Belle (Riverhead Books, $24.95):

New Yorker Rebekah Kettle, the successful author of a long-ago literary debut, is suffering from writer's block at the outset of this hilarious and poignant third novel from Jennifer Belle. A huge fan of fictitious movie director Arthur Weeman (who bears a resemblance to Woody Allen), Rebekah spies on him and writes him letters in the guise of a 13-year-old fan — that is, whenever she isn't stealing $22,000 from her physician father to buy Weeman memorabilia. Despite some serious attention-deficit problems, this protagonist is an endearing figure, and Belle has a lot of fun with an art-imitating-life scenario.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

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