Ann B. Ross, Author . Viking $23.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-670-91026-7

Imagine Aunt Bee from the Andy Griffith Show with a lot more backbone and confidence, and drop her smack in the middle of a humorous, rollicking plot akin to that of the movie Smokey and the Bandit and you have the tone and pace of Ross's entertaining second novel (after Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind) starring the feisty Southern heroine. When the sheriff won't help Miss Julia find Hazel Marie, her deceased husband's former girlfriend who now lives with Miss Julia along with Hazel Marie's illegitimate son, Little Lloyd, she takes over, determined to rescue Hazel Marie from danger. Miss Julia quickly finds herself embroiled in scandals involving Brother Vernon Puckett, "a ranting and raving television and tent-revivalist," and Pastor Larry Ledbetter, a "silky smooth pulpiteer of the biggest church in town." A handsome private investigator and a famous NASCAR driver add to the exploits. Gallivanting all over North Carolina, Miss Julia "takes a hand in her own life" as she searches for Hazel Marie, running into unexpected trouble, car chases and illegal activities. At times, this teetotaling dowager full of ironic self-righteousness seems a bit contrived, and the scenes in which she helps Hazel Marie escape from the bad guys are far-fetched. Despite the simplistic spin, Miss Julia will continue to appeal to the many readers who enjoyed the first book, as well as fans of fiction by Southern writers like Bailey White, Anne George and Fannie Flagg. (July 23)

Forecast:In the short term, national publicity and a 10-city author tour will help to get the word out. The film version of Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind, starring Shirley MacLaine and Dolly Parton, is in the works, which bodes well for the long term.