"The Love of My Youth," by Mary Gordon (Pantheon, $25.95) The mistress of subtlety, Mary Gordon, returns with an eccentric novel framed around the city walks of 60-something former lovers who meet again in Rome. The novel is set in the eternal city, where little ever changes, between two characters who are thoroughly changed by their 40 years apart. The escapist Roman vistas are reason enough to read this literary stunner. Gordon's gorgeous prose makes the novel of longing and forgiveness truly unforgettable.

"At Home With the Templetons," by Monica McInerney (Ballantine, $15) If a book's success can be determined by the believability of its secondary characters, Aussie author Monica McInerney's novel, peopled with miscreants and meddlers, stands far above the rest. Everyone loves a tale of star-crossed lovers, and few could resist the charge of the romance that blooms between upper-crust Gracie Templeton and plain-folks Tom in this decade-spanning narrative filled with enough heartbreak and redemption to keep even the most fickle readers swooning by story's end.

"City of Ash," by Megan Chance (Broadway, $15) Two steely heroines narrate "City of Ash," a sweeping, episodic tale of 19th-century Seattle in the days of the Great Fire of 1889. Megan Chance breathes life into Geneva and Beatrice, actresses in the city's premier theater company. Although they should be sworn enemies -- they're sharing the affections of one scheming, abusive man -- a winning combination of girl power and circumstance transforms them into heroines of an edgy historical novel that proves impossible to put down.

"22 Brittania Road," by Amanda Hodgkinson (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, $25.95) War ravages a family's dreams of togetherness in Amanda Hodgkinson's razor-sharp debut novel, set in the aftermath of Nazi atrocities in Poland. When strong-willed Silvana reunites with her husband, Janusz, in England after a six-year separation, she's no longer the smiling, red-headed young wife of prewar days; her head is shaved and gray after the haunting years that she and her son, wild little Aurek, spent hiding in a dense Polish forest. As the troubled trio struggles to reclaim a happy family life, readers will be riveted until the final page to learn if wartime horrors left a truly indelible mark.

"Alice Bliss," by Laura Harrington (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, $25.95) Get the tissues out to tackle "Alice Bliss," by talented newcomer Laura Harrington. Alice is a girl grappling with the twin sorrows of adolescence and the absence of her father, Matt Bliss, in this emerging genre of novels chronicling the most hotly debated U.S. war of modern history: Iraq. In allowing readers to befriend Matt, understand his unique value as a person and see what he means to his daughter, it's painfully simple to realize how essential every soldier's life is to his or her family.

"The Very Thought of You," by Rosie Alison (Washington Square Press, $15) With England on the verge of war, 8-year-old Anna is evacuated from her London home to a sprawling estate in the country, safe from the threat of German bombs. From this rather ordinary plotline springs an unmistakably extraordinary story as lonely young Anna grows to love Mr. Ashton, the wheelchair-bound master of the estate whose marriage has been strained for years. There are no predictable twists and turns here, only the realization that sometimes the purest love stories are the most memorable.

"A Game of Secrets," by Dawn Tripp (Random House, $25) Elizabeth Strout fans will find a lot to admire about Dawn Tripp's new novel, cleverly framed around the idea of revealing old family mysteries through a continuing series of Scrabble games between two aging matriarchs. Even if Tripp's prose proves devoid of emotion at times, her flair for drop-dead Yankee storytelling makes up for any shortcomings, as a grown daughter searches for clues to her long-lost father's ultimate fate in the arrangement of tiny wooden letters.

"Cleaning Nabokov's House," by Leslie Daniels (Touchstone, $24) How can a novel that begins with a woman losing custody of her children wind up so blisteringly funny? In Leslie Daniels' delight of a book, Barb Barrett's decision to divorce her husband lands her in a wacky plot line that leads to the discovery of a hodgepodge manuscript that she feels certain was penned by Vladmir Nabokov. She explains that the prose is so gorgeous, "the reader is suspended in the perfect moment of now." The same can easily be said of Daniels' gem-filled novel, a goofy little treasure on every page.

  • Andrea Hoag is a book critic in Lawrence, Kan.