By Travis Mulhauser. (Ecco, 240 pages, $26.99.)

Most of "Sweetgirl" takes place over 24 hours, during which a teenage girl slogs through a knee-deep blizzard with a baby she'd never intended to rescue from a meth house, carrying the child across her chest in a papoose jury-rigged from the hood of a snowmobile suit, all while being pursued by drug addicts.

Yet at the strangest times you can't help but smile at this disarmingly original novel. It's because of the dialogue, incongruous and yet weirdly credible, between Percy James, the teen, and her one ally, Portis Dale, who'd once dated her mother, Carletta.

Carletta is whom Percy had intended to rescue from the meth house — and not for the first time. Dale's sense of duty and Percy's determination to save the baby she calls Sweetgirl puts them on the same side, but their banter melds false bravado with pained affection. Neither of them has ever expected anything to be easy, and it isn't. But there's more: We get the internal monologue of Shelton Potter, the meth dealer, as he imagines himself the shrewd pursuer, himself the hero-rescuer of the baby.

Author Travis Mulhauser traverses a wobbling slack line across a moral crevasse that few of us will experience. Yet there's a devastating credibility to the events he creates. You trust that he won't leave us without a happy ending, or as happy as possible. But that outcome is tempered by the reality that this work of fiction isn't, not really. And you can't help but sigh.


Staff writer


By Dean Koontz. (Bantam Books, 560 pages, $28.)

Dean Koontz is a prolific writer. "Ashley Bell" is his 69th published book — the 36th I've read.

This one is about likable Bibi Blair, a young writer, and her desperate search for a mysterious woman named Ashley Bell. Exactly what their connection is, though, is not immediately explained.

There are flashbacks to Blair as a child, often with an elderly neighbor called the Captain. There are asides about her fiancé, a Navy SEAL on a secret mission. And there is a bit about her parents.

As for the main story, it has a villain, a serious illness and a search. Koontz masterfully builds suspense, introduces a handful of memorable characters and keeps several threads going.

When he ties everything together, however — with an unexpected twist — the resolution comes across as rather silly. Where a square knot might do, he uses an unconventional twist hard to accept. The final pages don't end the story neatly but set up a sequel, instead. I'll read it with the hope it has a better ending.

Roman Augustoviz

Sports copy editor