THE SEASON OF SECOND CHANCES
By Diane Meier (Henry Holt, 290 pages, $25)
You've heard this story before: Older woman starts over in a new place and falls in love with the buff younger man who comes to fix up her house. But this novel about second chances strays from the formula enough to make it better than most.
Joy Harkness is a professor at Columbia University when she gets lured by an icon of feminist literature to help start a new program at Amherst College. So she gives up her condo near the Hudson (first clue that this is a fantasy: She sells it for $50,000 over the asking price) and buys a ramshackle Victorian in the bucolic Massachusetts town.
No longer buffeted by the bustle of New York City, she slowly drops her defenses and begins to make friends. (Fantasy No. 2: Her office mate happens to be a gourmet cook who likes to feed strays.) She relies on the local handyman to repair her falling-down house. (Fantasy No. 3: Not only can Teddy wield a hammer, but he also knows which wall colors will soothe Joy's prickly nature -- and how to make slipcovers.) She begins to question what she needs to change in herself to be happy. By the end, you know she'll get there, but thankfully Meier leaves a few dots unconnected.
THE THINGS THAT KEEP US HERE
By Carla Buckley (Delacorte Press, 416 pages, $25)
I will never scoff at talk of a pandemic again. This fictional story of the spread of H5N1 virus and its effect on society is chilling, scarier than any gruesome thriller. Ann and Peter Brooks are a normal suburban Ohio couple in the midst of a divorce. They have two daughters and the normal daily concerns. Peter works as a veterinarian researcher who is investigating reports of an avian flu outbreak. As he tracks movement of the virus from overseas to the United States, the epidemic begins to rage out of control.
Their town goes into lockdown. Food and water become scarce. A snowstorm knocks out power, and they resort to their fireplace for heat. Nobody can be trusted. The breakdown of society is painful and fascinating. Who will survive? How will it end? Few books are powerful enough to keep me awake at night, as this one was. I just kept thinking: This could happen.
JUDY ROMANOWICH SMITH