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POP LIT

Tales with twists of fate and family ties

Almost a Crime
By Penny Vincenzi
Overlook, 672 pp., $27.95

The Half Life of Stars
By Louise Wener
Harper Paperbacks, 320 pp., $14.95

Home to Big Stone Gap
By Adriana Trigiani
Random House, 301 pp., $25.95

So Much for My Happy Ending
By Kyra Davis
Mira, paperback, 416 pp., $13.95

The big, fat, escapist novel never goes out of style. One new example is by bestselling British author Penny Vincenzi, who writes sprawling, overstuffed, melodramatic novels, the type that keep you up nights, turning pages, sometimes against your better judgment. A second, by Louise Wener, is a beautifully written story about a man trying desperately to outrun his past and the sister who won't let him go.

"Almost a Crime," published in Britain in 1999, is the fourth Vincenzi to hit American bookstores, on the heels of "Into Temptation," the final novel in her 20th century-spanning Lytton family trilogy. "Almost a Crime" takes place in late 1990s London, just before and after the death of Diana, princess of Wales.

Octavia and Tom Fleming appear to have a perfect "power" marriage. Her company dispenses expensive advice to a host of high-profile charities. He's an influential public relations consultant and lobbyist. They're glamorous figures about London, with all the trappings of success, including a city house and a country house, a Range Rover, and a full-time nanny for their 9-year-old twins and infant daughter. Octavia feels compromised when Tom suggests she use one of her charities to help his client, a developer who wants to tear up a choice bit of English countryside. Then Octavia discovers Tom is having an affair, and all that perfection begins to unravel.

The novel has a large cast of supporting characters, most notably Felix Miller, Octavia's businessman father, who has an unhealthy fixation on his only child. The plot features no end of bad behavior, from infidelity and insanity to intimations of incest and kidnapping. The book barrels on relentlessly from one crisis to the next.

"Can a single event, a simple twist of fate, dictate the way we go on to live our lives?" wonders Claire, the central character in Louise Wener's lovely, offbeat fourth novel, "The Half Life of Stars." In her brother Daniel's case, the answer may be yes. But the event in question was no simple twist of fate. When Daniel, a lawyer, disappears, leaving his wife and children behind, everyone has a theory . He's been kidnapped. He's intentionally dropped out, with the help of a mysterious Japanese organization. He's run off with another woman. But Claire is the only one with a notion of where he may have gone, and why.

Claire is an appealing narrator. She's divorced, sexy, irreverent, imaginative, probably the sanest member of a family held together by a net of lies. With her ex-husband, Michael, Claire searches for Daniel in Florida, where the family spent several unhappy years. Their father died of a heart attack on a trip to Cape Canaveral. Daniel, then a teenager, was with him. Claire has an idea that there may be some connection between her father's death and her brother's disappearance. Wener, the lead singer of the 1990s British band Sleeper, is at her best when she's exploring family relationships.

Many readers less cynical than I am will enjoy Adriana Trigiani's "Home to Big Stone Gap," the somewhat attenuated sequel to her immensely popular Big Stone Gap trilogy. Trigiani's warm, folksy confections about life in a little Virginia mountain town appeal to the Mayberry impulse, a nostalgic yearning for the kind of idealized small town life that these days exists only in fiction .

Ave Maria MacChesney, the central character in the novels, has just returned from Italy and her teenage daughter Etta's wedding.

Ave Maria goes back to work at the pharmacy. Her husband, Jack, has a serious health crisis. Ave Maria agrees to direct the town's annual winter musical. Favorite characters from the series turn up for the holidays and partake of Fleeta Mullins's Long Winter's Nap Christmas Cake (recipe included). Ave Maria and Jack travel to Scotland. The book is Trigiani's holiday gift to her many fans. It's not her best, but some of the recipes look promising.

Kyra Davis brings insight and energy to "So Much for My Happy Ending," her story, set in San Francisco, about a woman who unwittingly marries a man with bi-polar disorder. April Silverperson is thrilled when her new boyfriend Tad Showers proposes. So what if it means changing her name to April Showers? She thinks Tad is the most loving, strong, romantic man she's ever met. His wild mood swings? He's tired because he stays up all night working on business projects.

April hopes for a simple wedding. Tad insists on a $70,000 extravaganza at the Ritz. She's hurt when he tells her his parents won't attend because they don't want an "ethnic" daughter-in-law (she's a Jewish African-American). The honeymoon is a disaster. She's almost happy to get back to the job she hates, managing a department in a high-end store. But she can't hide from Tad at work 24 hours a day. Tad's lying is escalating. His spending is out of control. He may be embezzling money. His mood swings are more extreme. In April, Davis has created a narrator with a sensitive, honest, engaging voice.

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

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