Novelist Lowry (Breaking Gentle, 1988, etc.) delivers a stunning work of nonfiction, charting the growth of a strange but healing intimacy between herself and a young woman prisoner sentenced to die for a gruesome murder. In 1988, Lowry was still in the state of numbness that had arisen four years earlier when her 17-year-old son Peter had died in a hit-and-run accident. Peter had been troubled, and in trouble, for years, and Lowry's grief was compounded by an obscure sense of guilt at somehow having failed him as a mother. Then she read about Karla Faye Tucker in The Houston Chronicle, her hometown paper. Karla fascinated Lowry with the contrast between her innocent prettiness and the horror of her crime--the motiveless, drug- impelled pickaxe murder of a hated acquaintance and his female companion. The luridness of Karla's background--she was a call-girl mom who taught her two daughters her trade and shot heroin with them--made her story even more compelling. Lowry requested an interview, and Karla agreed, beginning a series of monthly visits in which the women shared details of their respective tragedies, as well as a lot of plain old restorative girl-talk. That Karla is Lowry's substitute child, the one she can do right by to make up for her self-perceived failure with Peter, and that Lowry is the good mother Karla never had, is an unavoidable inference--but there is more to this complex relationship: a shared taste between Lowry and Karla for mystery and impulse, and a mutual amazement as to ``how much happiness you can find within completely unacceptable givens.'' Gripping true-crime details and marvelous local color in Lowry's rendering of the wild, heartless boomtown of Houston make this a real page-turner. But most remarkable is the author's insight into the human capacity for extremes of violence and tenderness, brutality and nobility.