Haven Kimmel, . . Free Press, $24 (273pp) ISBN 978-0-7432-4775-7

Kimmel returns to the semirural Indiana of her bestselling memoir, A Girl Named Zippy , and her witty novel, The Solace of Leaving Early , to recount, in graceful episodes, the troubled coming-of-age of Cassie Claiborne, who balances "on the fulcrum of happiness and despair." Following a stage-setting prologue, the book opens with 10-year-old Cassie waiting, as usual, for her irresponsible, often absent father. Jimmy Claiborne is a selfish lout who cares more for pool than his family ("You know you're my favorite, Cassie, although God knows that ain't saying much"), but his love for the game soon becomes Cassie's when his friend Bud teaches her to play. As a teenager, she's a pool shark, paying the bills for her defeated, distant mother, Laura, and taking care of her overachieving, agoraphobic sister, Belle. Understandably, she'd like a better life. After Jimmy splits for good—divorcing his wife and emancipating his daughters—Laura waxes nostalgic about an old boyfriend in New Orleans whom she left for Cassie's father. Cassie fantasizes about how things might have been had her mother stayed with that man, "her shadow father." At 30, Cassie has become a strong-willed feminist (though she'd never call herself that) who goes to New Orleans to defeat her demons and her mother's old boyfriend in a game of nine-ball. Kimmel's characters are sympathetic and believable, and the author proves herself equally deft at conveying smalltown desolation and the physics of pool. With a tougher core than her previous books, and an ending that's redemptive without being clichéd, Kimmel's latest is another winner. Agent, Bill Clegg. (Jan. 6)

Forecast: Aggressive promotion—including a 15-city author tour—should help Kimmel build her fiction readership, which has yet to match the response to her memoir.