Women of Camelot
by J. Randy Taraborrelli

This book about the wives of Kennedy rogues Jack, Bobby and Ted reads like Valley of the Dolls goes to Washington. Booze, pills, bitchy rivalries—it's all here in this bloated but fun read by celebrity biographer Taraborrelli.

Based on interviews (though not with the wives) and previously published material on the Kennedys, the author—dishy tone aside—provides surprisingly three-dimensional portraits of queenly Jackie, sharp-tongued Ethel, sensitive alcoholic Joan and their complex relationships with one another. (Ethel's jealous sniping at Jackie is a hoot.) While the book upholds old rumors, such as Ethel's affair with singer Andy Williams, it leaves a question mark surrounding alleged flings between Jackie and Bobby and Bobby and Marilyn Monroe. (The book was completed, of course, well before the latest family imbroglio—the Jan. 19 arrest of Ethel's nephew Michael Skakel, 39, who is charged with the 1975 murder of his 15-year-old Greenwich, Conn., neighbor Martha Moxley.)

Though none of the cheating Kennedy men was any bargain as a husband, it's Joan—if the long list of Teddy's cruelties here is to be believed—who got the rawest deal. After she campaigned for his Senate reelection in 1964 as he recuperated from a plane crash, Teddy's way of saying thanks was to head directly from the hospital into the arms of a mistress. (Warner, $25.95)

Bottom Line: Gossipy but sympathetic portrayal

A Singer's Journey
by Allan Keiler

In 1939 world-class contralto Marian Anderson was barred—because of her race—from performing an Easter concert in Washington's Constitution Hall when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to rent her the space. Instead, supported by the NAACP and Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial. In so doing she brought attention to both her magnificent voice and the reality of segregation in the capital.

This absorbing authorized biography puts Anderson's career before her skin color, but Brandeis University music professor Keiler, who interviewed the singer shortly before her death in 1993 at age 96, carefully documents both her musical evolution and civic triumphs. Though clearly awed by the stately vocalist who dressed in white satin, Keiler celebrates the humanitarian who served as a U.N. delegate, funded scholarships for black youth (both Jessye Norman and Leontyne Price auditioned for one but lost), mastered works by Brahms, Schubert and Sibelius and became the first African-American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. (Scribner, $30)

Bottom Line: Serious, engaging bio of the pioneering diva

by Stacey D'Erasmo

Isabel Gold keeps defining herself by the women who pass in and out of her life. Once the slacker best friend of dope-smoking Lottie and the acting protégée of Juilliard dropout Rebecca, Isabel is now a 22-year-old actress living on Manhattan's Lower East Side with her lover, experimental filmmaker Thea. But beneath all the masks is the real Isabel: a lost 8-year-old girl left behind when her mother, Cassie, committed suicide.

D'Erasmo's first novel, Tea evokes sympathy with its portrait of a life so deeply shattered that emotions seldom surface. Even so, Isabel comes off as frustratingly shallow as she latches onto one person and then another, trying to drop out of her '70s middle-class life in order to fit into the gritty world she now inhabits. D'Erasmo's device of re-creating past decades through pop-cultural and historical references often seems forced. Still, Isabel's story is compelling enough that when she finally breaks down—and out of her false identities—we can't help but drink it all in. (Algonquin, $21.95)

Bottom Line: This Tea takes time to brew

by Nelson DeMille

Page-turner of the week

As the 300 passengers on Trans-Continental's Flight 175 from Paris to New York City discover, the young man who gets handcuffed to his seat by Federal agents is a most dangerous traveling companion. He is Libyan terrorist Asad Khalil, who manages a murderous, Houdini-like escape from the plane and quickly moves on to his real mission: vengeance for the 1986 bombing of Tripoli by the U.S. The critical job of figuring out who's next on the Khalil hit parade—and, equally important, why—falls to John Corey, the wisecracking former NYPD homicide detective the author introduced in his monster bestseller Plum Island.

DeMille deftly interweaves Corey's search with Khalil's grisly rampage, resulting in a tense tale as well as a surprisingly complex portrayal of what might have been just another nasty villain. You almost develop a glimmer of compassion for Khalil—no mean trick considering this is a guy who frets that his victims might have died in insufficient agony and leaves even his accomplices gurgling for breath. A few pages with Khalil, and Jack the Ripper seems like the shy, sensitive type. (Warner, $26.95)

Bottom Line: Bulletproof plot—and a good thing, too, since the bullets keep ricocheting

>SAVING AGNES Rachel Cusk With poignancy and piquancy, this humorous British novel chronicles a career woman grappling with bad skin, lost love and a nagging dissatisfaction. (Picador/St. Martin's, $23)

GAP CREEK Robert Morgan Likely to appeal to fans of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, this gritty novel tells of a young couple's hard-scrabble life in late 19th-century Appalachia. (Algonquin, $22.95)

THE ESSENTIAL LEWIS AND CLARK Edited by Landon Y. Jones The West's explorers recorded their perilous journey in more than 900,000 words, pared down here by Jones (PEOPLE's former Managing Editor) into 203 riveting, readable pages. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $24)

  • Contributors:
  • Victoria Balfour,
  • V.R. Peterson,
  • Julie K.L. Dam,
  • Curtis Rist.