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The fine art of keeping the laughs coming

Bachelor Boys
By Kate Saunders
St. Martin’s, 304 pp., $21.95

A Dollar Short: The Bottom Dollar Girls Go Hollywood
By Karin Gillespie
Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., $19.95

By Alan Titchmarsh
Simon & Schuster, 304 pp., $27.50

Romantic comedy is easy to read, but it must be difficult to write, since so few novelists manage to do it well.

British author Kate Saunders's second novel, ''Bachelor Boys," is an unusually witty and intelligent romance. Cassie, who narrates the story, is 31, the editor of a literary quarterly. She grew up next door to the Darlings, a loving family whose warmth embraced their young neighbor, who was neglected by her work-obsessed parents. Cassie has remained close to the widowed Phoebe, mother of 31-year old Fritz and 29-year old Ben. Phoebe, terminally ill with leukemia, asks Cassie to introduce ''the boys" to some of her attractive, successful girlfriends so Phoebe can see them safely married before she dies.

Fritz and Ben are handsome, charming, feckless, still living in the basement of the family home. Ben is an unemployed musician, ''too sensitive" to perform or teach. Fritz abandoned a career in medicine to become, as Cassie puts it, ''the very worst sort of unemployed actor," i.e., gorgeous, pretentious, and completely lacking in talent. Neither wants for girlfriends, ''floozies and slappers and aging rock chicks," complains Phoebe.

To please her beloved Phoebe, Cassie tries to ''improve" the Darling boys and attempts to match them up with likely women. But Fritz and Ben are tough sells among Cassie's high-achieving friends, who are desperately looking for good long-term prospects: solvent, self-supporting, sensitive men, not ''useless drones." Cassie considers herself lucky to love dull but stable Matthew, who is ''pursuing a glittering career in corporate law with the single-minded intensity of a woman."

The plot of ''Bachelor Boys" employs some of the oldest tricks of the romance trade, but the engaging characters and the author's fresh, funny voice make this unlikely story credible and new.

What happens when a world-famous movie star seduces an average guy who happens to be some ordinary woman's husband? It's a scenario familiar to followers of Hollywood gossip. Chiffon Butrell, a small-town girl from Cayboo Creek, S.C., is that ordinary woman in Karin Gillespie's broadly comic novel ''A Dollar Short," the second in her ''Bottom Dollar Girls" series.

When superstar Janie-Lynn ''Jay-Li" Lauren appropriates handsome, weak-willed Lonnie Butrell, he abandons his wife and three small children. It might seem that Chiffon's luck couldn't get any worse, but it does. She loses her job waiting tables at the local steak house. She slips on a Wesson Oil slick in the supermarket and sprains her ankle. She's besieged by paparazzi, who surround her house and sift through her rubbish, looking for a scoop. The details of her failed marriage, along with accounts of Lonnie and Jay-Li's hot romance, are plastered all over TV, tabloids, and glossy magazines. Lonnie won't return her calls. Jay-Li demands that she sign divorce papers.

Chiffon is far from thrilled when her prim older sister Chenille shows up with her pampered Norwich terrier, Walter, in tow. Chenille has lost her teaching job due to an incident involving a menacing teaching assistant and a plastic machete. Chiffon needs help, and Chenille pitches in. She also provides a romantic subplot. Mavis, Elizabeth, and Attalee -- Chiffon's friends from the Bottom Dollar Emporium -- lend support. Chiffon begins regaining her confidence. There's a clear message about women's friendships and empowerment, but the author doesn't belabor the point.

Gillespie piles on one Southern cliche after another, and may appear to some readers to condescend to her characters. She lives in Augusta, Ga., and presumably knows how far she can push the stereotypes. Her depiction of life in a small Southern town is fond and good-natured, if one-dimensional. But this is pop lit, not great literature. ''A Dollar Short" is meant to entertain, and it does. It takes talent to sustain this level of comic writing for over 300 pages. Gillespie keeps the ball in the air, spinning madly, until the end.

Alan Titchmarsh may not be a household name on this side of the Atlantic, but he's a celebrity in Great Britain. He's familiar as the host of gardening programs and specials, including the BBC television series ''Ground Force," which airs here on BBC America. He's the author of more than 40 books, most of them on gardening. He also writes novels. ''Rosie," his fifth (published in England but available here online), is a mildly humorous romance, as flimsy as a daylily blossom but nowhere near as colorful.

Nick Robertson lives on the Isle of Wight and makes a living painting watercolors. One day he gets a call from the London police saying that his 87-year-old grandmother, Rosie, has chained herself to the gates outside the Russian embassy to draw attention to her alleged connection to the Russian royal family. Is she the illegitimate daughter of one of the four unfortunate grand duchesses? Will Nick find true love with the elusive Alex? Will Rosie teach Nick, by her example, how to enjoy life before she fades away? All will be revealed to readers who manage to slog to the end of ''Rosie." Titchmarsh's plodding style doesn't do justice to his story.

Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.

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