Paperback Picks -- The latest books from Stephen King, John Updike, and Linda Barnes

Four Past Midnight
Stephen King
If beginnings were all that counted in storytelling, Stephen King would be pop fiction’s most reliable entertainer. Every one of the four tales in this hefty collection lifts off handily within the first few pages. Unfortunately, stories also need middles and ends, and in King’s less-controlled yarns, the middles sag while the endings often collapse into confused hysterics. With one fine exception — ”The Sun Dog” — these new novellas represent the prolific King at his least royal. C+

The Plains of Passage
Jean M. Auel
In her latest Ice Age saga — a series that began with The Clan of the Cave Bear — Auel’s tall, blond, omnicompetent heroine, Ayla, and her tall, blond, Cro-Magnon boyfriend, Jondalar, travel across the grasslands of the Ukraine to the west end of the Black Sea, then up the delta of the Danube. Auel intercuts passages limited to Cro-Magnon points of view with others that only someone up on the latest paleontology could have written, such as treatises on how mammoths mate and glaciers grow. B+

Buffalo Girls
Larry McMurtry
As their world — the West — disappears, McMurtry’s cowboys, Indians, mountain men, and buffalo girls become, with few exceptions, chronically depressed. Yet their stories and their talk are gallantly enjoyable. When two disappointed beaver hunters ride into a desolate, abandoned Wyoming town — ”It was a beautiful morning, not a cloud between them and the Colorado” — they experience an exhilarating feeling of possibility that never entirely deserts them. The book is about hope in the face of hopelessness. A

Rabbit at Rest
John Updike
The age of families: the ’50s. The age of psychopolitical voyages and discoveries: the ’60s. The age of oodles: the Reagan ’80s. The waning age: right now. These are the defining moments of John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, and with each volume the author has seemed more determined to hold a mirror up to the age at hand. Spectacularly readable, Rabbit at Rest is filled with news of contemporary life. What’s troubling is that in pursuing fun, the book seems to jettison the search for understanding that animated the earlier Rabbits. B+

Linda Barnes
In her third full-length appearance, Linda Barnes’ detective Carlotta Carlyle — former cop, part-time cabbie — has come into her own and joined the small but growing lineup (Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone) of commanding, hard-boiled heroines. A-

There’s a Country in My Cellar
Russell Baker
The muddled middle-class man, baffled by machinery, income tax forms, the latest scientific pronouncement, and modern life in general — this is the comic persona of New York Times writer Russell Baker. As this collection of columns from the past 25 years makes clear, Baker may be less solemn than the pundits who surround him, but he is also more serious, more scathing, and more enduring. B+

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