by Joan Collins

We may never get to read A Ruling Passion, the infamous Joan Collins "novel" deemed incomplete and unreadable by her publisher Random House, which sued unsuccessfully to retrieve its advance and reduced her to tears in court. But thanks to the thoughtful people at Dutton, we can read this finished Collins novel, rushed into stores no doubt to capitalize on the high drama of the Random House affair. So cut to the chase: Can the woman write or not?

Well, she's no John Grisham, but Infamous looks, feels and reads like a real novel. Of course, just as putting her name on a line of clothes wouldn't make Collins a designer, putting her name on trashy novels (this is her third) doesn't make her a writer (she admitted in court that she relies heavily on patient editors).

This Hollywood sizzler, which chronicles a doomed affair between a troubled TV star (on a Dynasty-like soap called The Skeffingtons) and a dashing mystery man named Jean-Claude, meets the standards of the genre—there's enough overheated prose and silly plot twists to satisfy anyone who doesn't snicker at subtitles like A Novel of Betrayal.

Okay, so Collins might not be in the same league as established trash queens like her sister Jackie, but Infamous, a perfectly coherent if overripe showbiz saga, proves that Joan is fully capable of turning out readable junk. Case closed. (Dutton, $23.95)

by Tami Hoag

Fans of beleaguered but steadfast O.J. prosecutor Marcia Clark will find her double in Hoag's new thriller. Sexy, 36-year-old Ellen North, assistant county prosecutor in Deer Lake, Minn., has Clark's fierce commitment to justice and her fervor at trial—plus an oily Johnnie Cochranesque nemesis. It's too bad for North—and the reader—that the kidnapping case she's assigned to is far more convoluted than the double murder on South Bundy. Guilty as Sin hardly begins before you're struggling to untangle the multitude of plot lines.

Hoag has thrown in too much—too many early deaths (including a couple of suicides) and an overdose of forbidden love. There's even a priest ready to forsake his vows when he falls for a married doctor who's the mother of a kidnapping victim. Still, the book sprints along—and the denouement, for Clark fans, at least, will be more satisfying than the one in Judge Lance Ito's courtroom. (Bantam, $21.95)

by Howard Kurtz

Talk shows bombard us with sleaze to the point of numbness," laments Kurtz, The Washington Post's acerbic media reporter. And this scathing critique offers plenty of gamy evidence. "Paul Says Ericka Wants Sex 10 Times a Day," read the caption on a Jenny Jones Show. "Age 11, Mother Killed by Stepfather," was how one young guest was identified on Oprah. Winfrey, as the author notes, has since cleaned up her act, and Phil Donahue, who once donned a dress on the air, has folded his carnival tent, evicted by low ratings. But Geraldo Rivera, Jerry Springer and other hosts continue to offer what Kurtz calls "a communal exercise in national voyeurism."

Still, his main targets are what he labels the "punditocracy," those bellicose, inside-the-Beltway know-it-alls on Crossfire, The McLaughlin Group, The Capital Gang et al. The most prominent among them, Pat Buchanan, sees no conflict of interest in using his bully pulpit on Crossfire as a staging area between presidential campaigns. "What did they expect me to do?" he asks Kurtz. "Become a brain surgeon?"

Actually, television talkers get paid a lot more—especially if you toss in their lecture fees. McLaughlin's Fred Barnes cops roughly $5,000 a speech, while CNN's Larry King spoke before a pharmaceutical group for $60,000. Neither he nor his colleagues believe that taking substantial sums from special-interest groups might compromise their journalistic integrity.

What's a skeptical TV viewer to do? Kurtz suggests tuning in C-SPAN, where politicians can speechify to their hearts' content. Sure, it may be dry, but it's better than listening to Buchanan and company blow hard in your ear. (Times Books, $25)

by Noah Adams

This amiable but bland journal recounts the year Adams, the host of NPR's All Things Considered, spent when, at 51, he surrendered to his lifelong passion and bought an upright Steinway piano. Like any kid whose parents make him do it, Adams struggles daily to learn chords and fingering and often as not puts off practicing for hours, days, even weeks. And he despairs that he'll never fulfill his dream of mastering Schumann's "Träumerei."

There are lots of pleasant discursions into the instrument's history and players both famous and lesser known. ("From the moment I learned there were keys to be mashed, I started mashing 'em, trying to make sounds out of feelings," says Ray Charles, while ABC correspondent John Hockenberry, a paraplegic, describes how he compensated for not using the pedals.) Unfortunately their voices are more compelling than Adams's; he isn't an arresting enough writer to take us to that place where the soul, the instrument and the music achieve sublime fusion. By book's end, Adams has learned "Träumerei" and plays it for his wife, but even that emotional highlight falls flat. (Delacorte, $20.95)

by Howard K. Smith

The most compelling events in Smith's life—and the most readable in this richly anecdotal, 65-year memoir—occurred in World War II, when the 81-year-old former broadcaster toiled first for United Press, then for CBS Radio, outwitting Nazi censors in Berlin, witnessing the carnage at the Battle of the Bulge and covering the Nuremberg war-criminal trials. His most harrowing adventure, though, took place in liberated Annecy, France, in 1944, when the Louisiana-born Smith and his Danish war bride, journalist Benedicte Traberg, were mistaken for collaborators and escorted at gunpoint by French Resistance fighters through a cursing mob. He likens the chaotic scene to "the French Revolution, lacking only tumbrils and guillotine."

Two decades later, Smith, then a CBS TV-network correspondent, got caught up in a different revolution. After seeing black Freedom Riders beaten senseless by white bigots in a Birmingham, Ala., bus depot, he refused to mute his outrage on-camera—despite the urging of bosses who feared alienating southern viewers. Smith quit, but ABC hired him, and he rose to nightly news anchor and later to commentator. He became a crony of LBJ's and a critic of antiwar protesters—America's "most self-centered and indulgent generation," he still insists. He may sound like a Grumpy Old Man at book's end, but his earlier adventures as a (literally) dashing young foreign correspondent are well worth your indulgence. (St Martin's, $24.95)

by Janet Evanovich

Page-Turner of the Week

MOST FEMALE DETECTIVES COME IN two models: prescient matrons like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and intense sobersides like Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone. But here's Stephanie Plum, a bail-bond agent from Trenton, N.J., clumping onto the PI scene in Doc Martens, with a sassy lip that would stop Philip Marlowe. Her equipment includes button-fly Levi's, a .38 and a sprightly Italian granny who loves mysteries. Stephanie crackles with '90s 'tude. While tracking down one bail-jumper and giving her libido a workout with a hunky cop, Plum collars another, beery, bail-beater. When he drops his pants and tells her to kiss his behind, Steph lets him have it in the rear with her stun gun. (Scribner's, $22)

>COVERBOY: MARK CONSUELOS

TITLE: Halfway Home PLACE: Charlestowne Mall, St Charles, Ill. NO. SIGNED: 450 in 120 minutes

She had pen in hand and smile in place, but Mary Jo Putney might as well have been invisible. One of three romance novelists sharing the stage with Mark Consuelos, who plays hunky waiter Mateos Santos on ABC's All My Children, Putney felt like a potted plant as fan after fan focused only on Consuelos. He had earned his spot onstage by lending his chiseled puss and pecs to the cover of Halfway Home by Bronwyn Williams (Topaz)—his debut as a romance-novel cover model. Not that Putney was terribly peeved. "We couldn't have this kind of event," she said, "unless someone like Mark were here to draw a crowd."

And draw he did: 450 fans waited more than two hours for an autograph, and 750 others milled around for a peek at Consuelos, 25. Among the devout were Linda Jett, 38, who routinely loses sleep over her dreamy idol ("I work 12 hours a day," she said, "but I tape him and watch him when I get home"); Illinois housewife Vicki Fraser, who had him sign her bare shoulder ("I leaned right in and said, 'Do it,' " she boasted); and five Chicago women who follow Consuelos to most of his Midwest signings ("I guess you'd call it a stalking," said Christine Newman, 31). Then there was Illinois mom Denise Schmeltz, 31, who plopped her 6-week-old daughter, Dinah, into the arms of a startled Consuelos. "Wow, she's really cute," he said before learning that the mother had taped three weeks' worth of AMC and wheeled a VCR and TV into the delivery room so she could watch tapes of Consuelos while pushing and panting. "I wanted to have a point of focus during the labor," she explained.

Such sweaty attention is all in a day's work for the single Consuelos. "Let's face it, longevity, especially in a daytime-TV series, depends on fan support," he said. If you're a jerk, you won't last long." Of course, he can always find work as a Lamaze coach.

  • Contributors:
  • Alex Tresniowski,
  • Clare McHugh,
  • Michael A. Lipton,
  • Paula Chin,
  • J.D. Reed,
  • Bonnie Bell.