by Joyce Cheney

Aprons as art? Only in the minds of some male chauvinist pighead, right? Not according to writer and avid apron collector Joyce Cheney, who celebrates the June Cleaver-esque kitchenwear as a form of female expression and even empowerment. In this photo-packed coffee-table album, Cheney traces trends in the styles of aprons as women's roles in American society changed. In the Depression-strapped 1930s, aprons were utilitarian, often made from old flour sacks. In the 1950s, they got frillier as washers and dryers began easing the housework burden. And in the 1960s and '70s, ruffles and rickrack were replaced with jokes and double entendres. Cheney admits that many young women today may never have actually put on an apron. No matter. Thanks to this nostalgic effort, any one of us can try on the ties that bound our mothers and grandmothers. (Running Press, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Frilly folk art

by Jodi Picouit

Book of the week

From the very start, Picoult (Keeping Faith) draws readers into her suspenseful, richly layered drama. J Katie Fisher, a Pennsylvania Amish teenager, hides an unintended pregnancy beneath her garments, gives birth to the baby alone in a barn, then denies knowledge of the child after it is discovered—dead—hours later. When high-profile Philadelphia attorney Ellie Hathaway is tapped to defend the unworldly girl against a murder charge, the urbane lawyer must navigate clannish conformity and her own preconceptions about the Amish to determine if and why the obedient Katie killed her newborn boy.

Despite the occasional cliché and a coda that feels artificially tacked on, Picoult's seventh novel never loses its grip. The research is convincing, the plotting taut, the scenes wonderfully vivid. Most impressive, the author gets beneath the uniformities of dress, custom and conduct to paint a unique community—closed to most Americans—in all its social and psychological complexity. As Katie's mother observes, and Picoult proves, "We look alike. We pray alike. We live alike. But none of these things mean we all think alike." (Pocket, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Absorbing, multidimensional portrait of an Amish clan

by Joe Klein

Klein seems intent on solidifying his place in the 'fraidy-cat wing of the literary lions association. Not only was his previous novel, Primary Colors, a most timid and genteel satire on Bill and Hillary Clinton, but Klein originally published it anonymously. This time around his target is fictional U.S. Sen. Charlie Martin, a feckless Vietnam veteran (clearly no resemblance to John McCain) whose girlfriend, a Manhattan-based swim-suit designer, still lives with her bisexual ex-husband. The novel is supposed to be an implicit attack on the American political system, but Klein lets it degenerate into a sappy romance. And the prose is as lame as the plot. A political correspondent for The New Yorker, Klein more often writes like a fashion reporter ("She was wearing an olive-khaki suit over a burgundy silk shell. The suit had a slightly military feel to it...the outfit seemed off, a notch too dramatic"). If ever he were to write anonymously, Klein should have done it with this book—to avoid guilt by association. (Dial, $26.95)

Bottom Line: A lame duck

by Beth Gutcheon

Star-crossed lovers, a haunted house and a murder mystery to solve—what more do you need in a page-turner? And Gutcheon's sixth novel is decidedly that. Set in the small Maine coastal town of Dundee, it tells two tales of family tragedy, one prefiguring the other. In the first, set in the mid-1800s, naive farm girl Claris Osgood makes a disastrous marriage to misfit Danial Haskell, whose chilly reserve she mistakes for depth of character. The union ruins at least five lives and ends in a killing that, more than half a century later, haunts 17-year-old Hannah Gray, a distant relative of Claris and Danial's who is plagued by a ghost while visiting Dundee for the summer. Determined to discover the long-ago murderer's identity—and in love with Conary Crocker, a town charmer who shares both her passions—Hannah follows her feelings and finds tragedy of her own.

Fast-paced, chilling and on target in its evocation of frenzied first love, More than You Know suffers only from Gutcheon's well-meaning attempts to freight it with significance. "Somebody said true love is like ghosts, which everyone talks about and few have seen," the book begins. "I've seen both, and I don't know how to tell you which is worse." We'll just take the story, thanks. (Morrow, $24)

Bottom Line: Spooky saga with delusions of grandeur

>SECOND OPINIONS Dr. Jerome Groopman A collection of real-life medical stories told by a doctor who not only understands the vital human connection between healer and patient but also knows how to turn science into heart-pounding drama. (Viking, $24.95)

THE WEDDING Danielle Steel The doyenne of modern romance takes us to Hollywood, where a typical family (a producer, a writer, a model, a lawyer and a doctor) prepare for a wedding...and remember how to love. (Doubleday, $26.95)

BACK ROADS Tawni O'Dell O'Dell's debut novel (an Oprah's Book Club choice) follows young Harley Altmeyer's struggle with the sins of his parents (one dead, the other in jail) and the demons they left behind. (Viking, $24.95)

>the Ramsey case

It would be hard to imagine more dramatically divergent views of the same crime than those offered by two new volumes examining the Christmas 1996 murder of 6-year-old Jon Benét Ramsey in Boulder, Colo. The Death of Innocence (Nelson, $24.95), by her parents, John and Patsy Ramsey (with uncredited help by freelance writer Robert L. Wise), relies on several pieces of unexplained physical evidence—including unidentified DNA found under the girl's fingernails and on her panties-to make the case for a pedophile intruder killing their little princess. The book also provides an emotional account of the family's subsequent ordeal. By contrast, JonBenét (St. Martin's, $24.95), from former Boulder police detective Steve Thomas (with local writer Don Davis), paints an impassioned and often persuasive alternative scenario, pointing the finger of suspicion directly at Patsy Ramsey. There's also plenty of blame for D.A. Alex Hunter, whose office cooperated closely, even cozily, with the couple's attorneys. Thomas says Hunter's restrictions on which witnesses could be interviewed under what conditions fatally com-. promised an already flawed probe. In fact, the detective's frustrations led him to resign from the investigation in August 1998 after 18 months as a key player.

Reading the two books can induce whiplash. The authors make opposing claims on such points as whether the voice of Jon Benét's brother Burke can be heard in the background of his mother's 911 call. (The Ramseys maintain he was asleep; Thomas says he is audible.) Absent even a report from the Boulder grand jury—which ended its probe last October—it is hard to weigh the relative merit of these claims. And yet these duelling accounts are likely to lead readers to the same conclusion: If ever a case cried out for an independent prosecutor, this one does.

  • Contributors:
  • Cynthia Sanz,
  • Jill Smolowe,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Kim Hubbard,
  • Pam Lambert.