by Elmore Leonard

He made an indelible mark with witty crime capers like Get Shorty and Pronto, but Elmore Leonard began his novel-writing career with shoot-'em-up westerns. In Cuba Libre, happily, he mines both rich veins. On the eve of the Spanish-American War, Arizona cowpuncher-bank-robber-horse-wrangler Ben Tyler arrives in Cuba with a string of mares to sell to an American sugarcane magnate. Of course things go wrong: Tyler shoots a Spanish officer, falls in love with the magnate's mistress and ends up chasing a fortune in greenbacks through some thorny plot twists. Leonard gets a bit long-winded describing turn-of-the-century Havana and the Cuban economy, but his bad guys and good guys, who often can't decide which side of the line they're on, keep this wonderful romp bayonet-sharp and galloping along at a breathless pace. (Delacorte, $23.95)

by Kristin Nelson Tinker

If ever there was an all-American wedding, this was it. Bride: Kristin Harmon, beautiful daughter of football legend Tom Harmon and movie actress Elyse Knox. Groom: Rick Nelson, rock-idol son of showbiz icons Ozzie and Harriet. Everything looked perfect. And then life happened, bringing divorce, Rick's death in a 1986 plane crash, family feuds, illness and rehab—all of which have been survived by this resilient woman.

Now happily married to TV producer Mark Tinker, Kristin Nelson Tinker is today a gifted artist whose moving autobiography combines intimate journal entries, favorite lyrics and poems and 105 of her vivid paintings. In one of those entries, Harriet Nelson, that neatly aproned epitome of the '50s housewife, offers a helpful hint to her daughter-in-law. "She says to knock it off with all my expectations," Tinker recorded in her diary, "and reminds me that I'll never be like her because she isn't like her." When at last Tinker did stop striving to be someone else, she became hopeful, looking to the future with "the wisdom the years have brought—and a basket of brushes and paint." (Abrams, $35)

by George Plimpton

In a book composed mostly of verbatim reminiscences, the late author of Breakfast at Tiffany's is revealed as an entertaining liar, a generous friend and a true pain in the dérrière.

Capote overcame an unsettled childhood in Alabama to light up the publishing scene at age 23 in 1948 with Other Voices, Other Rooms; his 1965 murder tale, In Cold Blood, cemented his reputation and influence. As time went by, however, Capote's consuming quest was being at one with the beautiful folk.

George Plimpton (assisted by half a dozen interviewers) effectively traces Capote's trajectory from brilliant, sylphlike, endearing young artist to self-important, back-biting, pill-popping old bore. But the format of the biography makes it long on anecdote, short on analysis. Readers may wonder why Capote the writer ultimately mattered and why, for him, celebrity mattered even more. Plimpton says he hopes the book will read "as if one had happened in on a large gathering, perhaps a cocktail party." Considering how much of his life was defined by such affairs, Capote probably would have loved it. (Nan A. Talese/Double-day, $35)

by Toni Morrison

Escaping their separate histories of rootlessness, trouble and grief, a group of women—the flawed, unlikely heroines of Paradise, Toni Morrison's new novel—find shelter in a former nunnery still called the Convent by their neighbors in an all-black Oklahoma town. The book opens in the 1970s with a brutal mob attack on four of the Convent's women; then the plot moves backward in time to explain how the women arrived at their ill-starred refuge and how the townspeople's view of them—as a contagiously immoral and ultimately intolerable force—led to this act of searing violence. Everything is resonant here: The most casual gestures are informed by the facts (and myths) of gender and race, by our notions of civilization and lawlessness, body and spirit, Christianity and witchcraft. Morrison's lyrical prose displays great confidence in her readers' intelligence, demands their unflagging attention and rewards them generously—with a memorable work of epic range and monumental ambition. (Knopf, $25)

by Charles Kaiser

Adversity has its advantages," Charles Kaiser writes in his latest book, and what other city but New York could offer the kind of character-building obstacles which the author contends helped define gay culture at the end of the 20th century?

Kaiser's thesis is simple: From the clandestine affairs of gay GIs in Central Park during World War II ("New York in wartime was the sexiest city in the world") to the outrageous promiscuity of the disco era to the AIDS crisis, the city has served as the principal arena in which contemporary gay culture and the fight for gay civil rights have evolved.

Supporting such a thesis seems a daunting task, yet Kaiser, a former editor at Newsweek, rises to the occasion with a lively and eminently readable sociological history. Animated by first-person accounts, articles and books from each decade, Metropolis successfully delivers the feeling that we were there. Its one weakness? The narrative too often drifts away to San Francisco or Europe, leaving a reader to wonder what's going on in Metropolis. (Houghton Mifflin, $27)

by Caroline Seebohm

She had wanted to be a cross between Eleanor Roosevelt and Carole Lombard, but Marietta Tree, the socialite and Democratic activist who died in 1991, was more akin to Pamela Harriman: an attractive, politically savvy paramour of powerful men.

Born into Massachusetts's prominent Peabody clan in 1917, Tree was about 10 when she announced to her grandparents that she would someday become a U.S. senator. By 20, she had rethought the matter, saying, "I intend to get power through connection with a man." And so she did—but with several men, among them two husbands (lawyer Desmond Fitzgerald and Ronald Tree, a conservative Member of Parliament), a U.S. presidential candidate (Adlai Stevenson) and a Hollywood film director (John Huston).

Unfortunately this is a rather limp rag of a biography. Seebohm never manages to make comprehensible her subject's star power and, despite dutiful reporting on Tree's strong stand for civil rights and her work for human rights at the UN, rarely makes her seem appealing or frankly even very interesting; there are too many instances of self-absorption, infidelity and indifference toward her daughters, journalist Frances Fitzgerald and model Penelope Tree. And Seebohm has an unfortunate way of putting things. "Thus did domesticity arise like a soufflé between them, embracing them in its frothy warmth," she writes of the Tree-Stevenson liaison. Naughty Marietta, indeed. (Simon & Schuster, $27.50)

by Stephen E. Ambrose

A German tank regiment allows a lost American ambulance to retreat behind friendly lines (and is rewarded with a crate of Chesterfields). A cab driver from Chicago invents a critical new device for bulling through the French hedgerows the generals hadn't planned for. A star war reporter (Ernest Hemingway, in fact) writes fatuously about bicycling and French bistros as men die at the front.

Stephen E. Ambrose, the author of D-Day and numerous other books, proves once again he is a masterful military historian. He draws on interviews with scores of soldiers from both sides for this spellbinding, grunt's-eye story of the U.S. Army's march from June 7, 1944—the day after D day—to the German surrender on May 7, 1945.

Then as now, those final, excruciating 11 months of combat have been overshadowed by the Normandy invasion, but Citizen Soldiers convincingly shows that what followed was equally awe-inspiring. At the same time, the book captures the bizarre contradictions, random kindness and unexpectedly comic moments of the push to Berlin as memorably as a great war novel. (Simon & Schuster, $27.50)

by Amanda Cross

It sounds like just the job for Kate Fansler. After all, when law professor Reed Amhearst vanishes, who better to discreetly probe the disappearance than one of his very own colleagues?

But as fans of Fansler, star of Amanda Cross's long-playing series of literate puzzlers know, there is a problem—the scholar-sleuth happens to be Reed's spouse. And a surprisingly big problem it proves, most of all for Cross—the pen name of retired Columbia University humanities professor Carolyn G. Heilbrun—who somehow, in this 12th installment of the mystery series, turns her crisply confident heroine into a discombobulated ditherer. Fortunately some sterner-minded friends, plus judicious infusions of single-malt scotch, eventually help get Kate back on track—in this case a rather meandering one.

By then, however, many readers may be convinced that the real puzzle here is why Cross decided to release a book so far beneath her usual sterling standard. (Ballantine, $21)

by Laura Zigman

The story is simple and way too familiar: Girl meets boy, boy dumps girl. You could cry over it, or rage against men, but Laura Zigman does neither. In her slight, charming first novel she siphons off the tears and the curses and by alchemy converts them into laughter. The trick is adopting a zoological take on human behavior, with special emphasis on what she calls "New-Cow theory": When it comes to mating, bulls like fresh bait.

Our heroine is 30-year-old Jane Goodall, and like the scientist of the same name her best research is done in the field. A former magazine editorial assistant, Jane now works for a TV talk show in New York City. So does Ray—he of the "J. Crew-model-bone-structure" and "washboard stomach." Two weeks into their affair, Ray is saying, "I love you"; three months later he's gone.

When she's almost done weeping, Jane hits the books, scavenging scientific explanations for the mating habits of single guys. She turns up entertaining, X-rated tidbits about hamsters and lemurs and banana slugs. Seeking roundabout revenge, she adopts a pen name and cranks out articles for a men's magazine. But she never learns the secret: how to turn the animal into a husband. (Dial, $22.95)

by Daniel Hecht

Page-Turner of the Week

ALOOF AND AUSTERE, THE ABANDONED mansion towers over the woods of New York's Westchester County. Within its walls, however, the prospect is far less commanding. With splintered furniture, shattered antiques and uprooted fixtures, it looks like the mosh pit of the titans. No wonder, the locals whisper: Highwood is haunted.

There's certainly no disputing its spell over two men: Paul Skoglund, the owner's nephew, and Morgan Ford, a cop investigating the disappearance of several local teens. As the pair probe Highwood's secrets, the trail leads them into parts of their own pasts they would rather forget—and possibly into mortal danger.

Deftly walking the line between shock and schlock, debut novelist Daniel Hecht steers his convincing tale of psychological horror to a stunning conclusion. His stylish thriller reminds us why we're so afraid of the dark—especially the kind that lurks within. (Viking, $23.95)

>Nadine Gordimer

AFTER THE REVOLUTION

FOR MANY YEARS, SOUTH AFRICAN author Nadine Gordimer often viewed violence as a political act: the stone thrown at a police officer, the bullet ending the life of a political dissident. But in her 12th novel, The House Gun (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the 1991 Nobel laureate talks about everyday violence. "People get accustomed to it, and it makes things possible that go counter to their morality," she says.

In The House Gun, the serenity of one middle-class, white South African family is shattered when their son kills his housemate in an act of jealous passion. The story offers Gordimer, 74, a means to explore the nation's altered racial equation in the aftermath of apartheid—symbolized by the family's hiring a black defense attorney. "That's part of the change," she says. "The whites never had to depend on a black person."

Tracking her country's march toward justice has been a fervent mission for the Transvaal native—the only child of a Lithuanian father and an English mother, both Jewish—ever since her first novel, The Lying Days, was published in 1953. "Writers try to bring out the truth among all the lies that are told," she says. And Gordimer, who lives in Johannesburg with her husband, Reinhold Cassirer, a retired art dealer, shows no inclination to slow down. Her latest project is a documentary film she is working on with her son Hugo Cassirer, comparing post-wall Berlin to post-apartheid South Africa. "[At first] everyone showers each other with kisses," Gordimer notes of life after a hard-won liberation. "Then comes reality."

  • Contributors:
  • J.D. Reed,
  • Emily Mitchell,
  • Thomas Vinciguerra,
  • Francine Prose,
  • Anthony Dugnan-Cabrera,
  • Joanne Kaufman,
  • Kyle Smith,
  • Adam Begley,
  • Palm Lambert,
  • Lydia Denworth.