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by David Rakoff

In this collection of 15 humor pieces, the Canadian-born Rakoff makes clear how much he disdains the sentimentally precious. If you like Annie, B&B’s or Roberto Benigni, then this book is probably not your bowl of borscht. For those who share his jaundiced view, it’s a laugh feast. Shish-kebabbing the cultural kitsch of this country (of which the author is now a proud permanent resident) and some others (Iceland and Japan to name but two), Rakoff takes care not to mock the everyday Joes and Janes he encounters on his global peregrinations. When he wants to draw blood, Rakoff, a featured commentator on Public Radio’s This American Life, sets his sights on celebrities. He gives a roasting to Robin Williams, that dewy-eyed Angel of Laughter,” for his unforgivable roles as Patch Adams and Jakob the Liar. (Doubleday, $21.95)

Bottom Line: Kitschy, kitschy coup

Fearless Jones

by Walter Mosley

How do you make things right after you’ve been beaten down, shot at, had your Nash Rambler stolen and your business torched? If you’re Paris Minton, a black seller of used books and magazines in Watts, ca. 1950, you call on a tall, guileless, Army-trained killing machine named Fearless Jones—the muscle making his debut in Mosley’s new mystery series.

Together, Fearless and Paris cruise an L.A. of neat bungalows and greasy spoons looking for vengeance and Elana Love, the seductive scam artist at the root of Paris’s woes. What they find instead is strange justice in a briskly paced plot involving crooked cops, stolen bonds, Nazi collaborators and enough creeps to rival Elmore Leonard and Chester Himes.

After forays into sci-fi, essays and screenplays, Mosley again writes a mystery that rocks. Like Easy Rawlins before them, Fearless and Paris (a complementary pair of manners and menace) keep hope—and their butts—alive with street smarts, irony and a wry, self-deprecating eye for racial prejudice. One night when Paris finds himself parked in a white neighborhood with an open bottle of peach schnapps, a stolen gun and a married white woman hiding in the back seat, the magazine merchant deadpans, “It was a far cry from selling Popular Mechanics and Batman.” (Little, Brown, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Mosley knows Watts happening

The Children’s War

by J.N. Stroyar

What would today’s Europe be like if the Germans had won WWII? There are already piles of books—Len Deighton’s SS-GB and Robert Harris’s Fatherland are two of the best-known—based on that scenario. But The Children’s War is not a thriller; it’s pure melodrama, a tempest of personal and political passions played out against a meticulously researched alternate reality. Our window into this world is Peter Halifax, a prisoner, slave and eventual resistance leader. There are intriguing glimpses of what might have been—the crushing effectiveness of Nazism reduced to thuggish bureaucracy, an isolationist America—but the real insights are psychological. The battered spirits of Peter and those around him testify to the essential horrors of totalitarianism.

At 1,153 pages, this first novel is the size of a panzer, and the prose is a blitzkrieg of clichés in places. But Stroyar stealthily plants dramatic land mines that explode only when you step on them several hundred pages later. That kind of payoff can happen when a book is long enough to get lost in. (Pocket, $29.95)

Bottom Line: Might makes Reich

A Theory of Relativity

by Jacquelyn Mitchard

Treading waters similar to those of her bestselling first novel, 1996’s The Deep End of the Ocean, Jacquelyn Mitchard once again submerges her characters in grief. Again, too, she sensitively probes the question: What makes a family? Gordon McKenna is a 24-year-old science teacher whose sister and brother-in-law perish with her husband in a car crash. Their baby daughter is thrust into a custody case that pits Gordon against another couple amid clashing egos, legal nitpicking and misplaced blame. An adoptive mother herself, Mitchard delivers a satisfying, delicate exploration of the ties that bind. (HarperCollins, $26)

Bottom Line: A family tree worth climbing

Hollywood Wives: The New Generation

by Jackie Collins

Beach book of the week

[1 star]

Sex. Scheming. More sex. Eighteen years after she hit the bestseller lists with Hollywood Wives—and subsequently with Hollywood Husbands and Hollywood Kids—Collins takes yet another look at love and lust in La-La Land. Guess what? Not much has changed.

Wife No. 1 this time out is Lissa Roman, a 40-year-old actress-singer with what Collins terms a “to-die-for” body and a lousy track record with men. Her 19-year-old daughter Nicci Stone is set to become a Hollywood wife herself—if she can keep her hands off her film producer fiancé’s bad-boy brother. Then there’s Lissa’s best girlfriend, Taylor Singer, married to a top director but sleeping with a 22-year-old wannabe screenwriter.

Mixed in with all the soapiness is an oddball kidnapping plot—opening the door for Lissa to meet sexy PI Michael Scorsinni—but the true intrigue is trying to figure out what real Hollywood characters Collins is caricaturing. Though sometimes sordid and often just plain silly, Wives still manages to make marital melodrama fun. (Simon & Schuster, $26)

Bottom Line: Luststyles of the rich and famous

John and Caroline Their Lives in Pictures

by James Spada

This photo album, published to coincide with the second anniversary of JFK Jr.’s death, spans his 38 short years. Hauntingly, the selection displays his propensity to accidents well before the July 16, 1999, plane crash that took his life. At 5, John fell into a cooking pit at a Hawaiian luau; a picture taken afterwards shows him with one hand in the firm grasp of his beleaguered-looking mom, Jackie, and the other in a white glove to cover second-degree burns. A 1985 snap shows him on crutches, one from ’97 presents an arm in a cast. Pictures of Caroline, now 43, suggest she tends to comport herself with more caution. Unlike her photo-friendly brother, she is more heedful of flashbulbs too. “Please tell me when nobody’s watching,” she once pleaded. Despite her wishes, someone nearly always is. (St. Martin’s, $29.95)

Bottom Line: Poignant memories